Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick

About five years ago, I first experienced Andrey Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972). Many consider this film the Russian response to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but this would be to interpret Tarkovsky's art and the film in a completely literal fashion. Tarkovsky's Solaris, and other films (most importantly The Mirror), are images of those moments we create to memory. The sight of water as it runs clear over a slimy patch of bright green grass, or the way fog climbs up the steep hill across a country acreage, etc. Tarkovsky is about light and image and memory and living. Also, Tarkovsky is about religion.

Why all this talk about Tarkovsky? Because I think it would be unfair to leave him out of the conversation when talking about Malick's newest film, The Tree of Life. Both men are influence by the power of memory on single images grapsed from the past and pasted permenatly against the back of our eyes.

The Tree of Life is a history of innocence and violence. The story of the innocence and violence in beginnings. The beginning of each death, each life, and existance as a whole. Malick is known for philosophical meanderings. The hushed voice overs of The Thin Red Line as they contemplate man vs nature, and the poetic musings voiced on man vs man in The New World. In Tree of Life, the whispers of nature vs grace. Each thought a quiet reaching towards answers. Malick uses a god as the one to ask. The film takes place in 1950's Waco, TX. These are religious folk who yearn for doing right by god. For the most part, we've all been there. I'll go so far as to say those of us lucky enough have been there. As children in our beds, scared. As families around tables, hoping. As an Atheist I struggled with the control of the spiritual in this film, but overtime let go. This is the way of the past, present, and future. The way of millions. To reach out to a higher power for hope and security. I had to allow this need and want to become part of a larger statement the film was making of experience.

I have wished my father dead. On many occasions in my youth I hoped he'd not return home. A strict, angry man with a temper not under his own control. I could relate to the father-son relationship. I have wandered through the home of neighbors who have left for the afternoon. I could relate to the young boy's curiosity, sexual and personal. I have removed fruit from the gardens of others, played baseball with the tomatoes, and felt guilt in the moment of destruction. I could relate to young Jack's struggle to impress friends or impress his mother. As an adult, we have all been haunted by those images as glimpses. Sitting in meetings, talking to friends, or watching a film. Our minds have removed us from the present and returned us to a past. I could relate to adult Jack's lost-in-thought glimpses out work room windows.

As the film ended, it saddened me to think there are those who can't find themselves in this film. Who are unable to let go of the anger they have towards their childhood, their parents, themselves. How rare for a film to make me think so far inside myself, while at the same time trying to go so far into strangers and their past.

Malick pairs this childhood story with the creation of the world. The audience is treated to about 20 minutes of pure visuals. Intense colors, shapes, and sounds. A creation story like we've never witnessed. There is something very abstract, and almost lost in this segment. I felt pulled a little too far away. But, I understand its message. Each beginning is something so complex, but ends up feeling so small. At the same time, each beginning is so small and becomes complex. This family of five in 1950s Texas is no different than your family, my family, the family down the street, or the creation of the world. We are all something so much larger and smaller than we'll ever fully be able to understand.

Malick's film is existential even though it falls so much to religion. None of the questions thrown out, the whispers repeated, or the cries for help are ever answered. There is a silence to every living moment. The characters choose to use this silence for a godly presence. Others just recognize a void. It is a film about choice. So much of who we become is created out of every single choice. The young Jack wishes he could return to innocence. Envies his younger brothers for their ability to still hold on to grace.

Many will not see this film. The length, the abstraction, the non-linear telling, the flights of fantasy, the whispered voice overs... all of this will only be experienced by a select few. And while I'm sure many who see it will walk away angry and bored, there is no doubt they will find themselves somehow touched by the truth of the film's beauty.


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Finale

I spend too much time inside my own head. Who doesn't? I would hate to think that probably not as many people as we hope. Instead, people have found ways to live somewhere else. Always another distraction. A way to escape those day to day trivial actions. A way to remove oneself from any sense of complete reality. I have spent too much time on this topic over the past few months. More specifically, on technology. On the way we are controlled by technology. The way technology interacts with our imagination. Once our imagination starts to slip, what becomes of our art? New and old?

Around 2002, I was taking a drama course at university. We read a play by Bertolt Brecht (The Good Person of Szechwan) and a play by Luigi Pirandello (Six Characters in Search of an Author). I would count these as my favorite plays. At the time of reading these plays, I liked to imagine myself as a playwright. What could I create? I liked to imagine a setting where an actor would bring a new person up on stage at every performance. The set would be a single table, two chairs, two people, one spotlight. For an hour and a half, the audience would watch two people interact. Strangers. The way they learn to understand one another. The way they begin to open up to one another. The play would be about ideas. About dialogue. About human connection. Then, a couple years later I heard about the film My Dinner With Andre. Seems someone had beat me to this idea.

Louis Malle's film if a focus on playwright/actor Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride, Manhattan) and playwright Andre Gregory. Two men who were once very close, but have not spoken to one another in years. Much has changed. And, for whatever reason, they have been brought back into the lives of one another. For a dinner and a lot of dialogue. The film is about ideas. The film is a philosophers examination on art, fate, the future, love, and choice (to name just a few). This film isn't for everyone. As you do, in fact, watch two men talk for 114 minutes. But, this may be the most fascinating and surreal conversation ever filmed.

Both actors are playing themselves. Or, versions of themselves. This is mentioned, at one point, as an exercise Gregory took part in during a trip abroad. Actually, most of the conversation are about Gregory's trips. Gregory's constant running from himself to find himself. He doesn't see it this way. He believes the rest of the world is running. Or, running in place. Gregory believes we're becoming robots. Unable to feel. Unable to understand the feelings of others. And, in turn, this causes theatre to suffer. If you can't understand yourself, or someone else, what is the point in theatre? What can be gained? So Gregory and Shawn discuss the shallowness of contemporary art. This was filmed in 1981. And couldn't feel more timely.

Gregory talks about our futures as robots. Gregory talks about the prisons we build around ourselves. Gregory tells Shawn that he believes New York City has turned into a kind of concentration camp. But, instead of one group building the camps and another group filling the camps, Gregory believes the people of New York City are both guards and prisoners. This is pretty suggestive. Painful to think about. My mind flashed to the moving (and frightening) Alain Resnais' documentary Night and Fog. All those men and women piled in bunkers. The black and white image of decay. This is what Gregory believes is in store for us.

So, this leads me to the next film, We Live in Public. A documentary about technology and privacy. I would never have thought this film and My Dinner With Andre would so perfectly fall in place together. But, they do.

We Live in Public follows ten years in the life of "the greatest Internet pioneer you've never heard of," Josh Harris. He was one of those dot-com people of the late 90s who saw a lot of money come in very quickly. Then watched it all slip away just as fast. There was something a little different about Josh, though. Josh was/is crazy. He would claim he is "crazy like a fox." Refusing to admit the actual issues that cause him to behave the way he does. His detachment from everyone in his world. He sends a youtube video to his mother on her death bed. It is a cold video. But, this is how he was raised. Josh believes our lives rest on how we were raised- by sound/image on screens (radio, television, computers, smart phones).

I first connect this film with My Dinner With Andre based on an experiment Josh creates named "Quiet." Josh invites 100 people to move into an underground bunker. Their entire lives will be filmed. Every second- sex, showering, shitting, etc. They will all sleep in a long room with a bunch of tiny beds. (It is this image, of 100 New Yorkers looking out from their beds that has a 21st century holocaust feel). Josh gives them anything they want- alcohol, pot, heroin, food, guns, religion. Everything is free. They just have to give up their privacy. Their image and lives on the tapes becomes the property of Josh (this was years before Facebook took over control of every image, video, email you share on the social networking site).

After this experiment, Josh spends six months being filmed in his apartment. Living with his girlfriend. The cameras are online. They are filmed at every angle (cameras in the toilet, in the cat box, in the fridge, in the bed, etc). They have a chatroom for their site. People interact. Start to care for these two people. Start to live a life with, for, and around these two people. Who is in control at this point? Those being watched? Or, those watching? Near the experiments end, it appears those who watch are most in charge. So, what does that mean for all of those people who are outside our lives and are constantly looking in through twitter, facebook, myspace, flicker, etc?

People will argue they are in charge of themselves. I do not fully buy this answer. I know people who feed off these new forms of interaction. This new way to feel you are someone. Have something to say. Those who no longer just want 15 minutes of fame in their lifetime, they want 15 minutes of fame at least once a day (as Josh states in We Live in Public). These strangers we interact with online become people we think we know. And, in turn, we become people they think they know. So, who are we? Who we imagine ourselves to be? How different is that imagination from the reality? And how much are we giving up of ourselves to be noticed? How low are our self esteems that we need a constant response to every step we take?

So, here I sit, typing out these thoughts. For what purpose? Who do I think I am to be read by strangers? To share these ideas with whomever comes across this page? Who have I been to be doing this for the past 14 months? This blog started out as a way for me to keep track of the books I was reading (a 2010 New Years resolution to read two books a month), the movies I watched, and the music I heard. Also, the blog was meant as a way for me to meditate on these experiences I was having with other forms of art. As a writer, I thought the blog would allow me to grow in my own writing. In the way I watch and dissect the day to day. Was any of that successful? I don't know. Hard to say. If anything, this blog got me to this point. To this long winded idea I have been forming for a few months.

I got off Facebook a handful of months ago. I only use Twitter to post quotes from films, music, books. And, for the occasional sentence that pops into my head for a short story. But, why don't I write these things down on the page? How can I, as a writer, pretend punching these things into a phone or a computer... sending them out into this technological theatre of the web... How can I pretend it holds purpose?

This goes so much further. Becomes so many more ideas. Does technology destroy art? Destroy imagination? Destroy our self esteems even further? How many people do you know are constantly checking their phone to see if they had any response via text, email, facebook, twitter, etc? We need to be noticed. But, it doesn't make us feel better. We just want more. This desire for more... how far down does it take us? Where has it placed us?There was a time I was excited for a new album release, because I would go to the record store the day of its release. Now, I download it before it hits the stores. We watch movies we download. Instead of sitting in a theatre and experiencing something as a group. and library websites are telling you what book you should read next. We're no longer seeking out the information we want.

So I know it is time to step away from all of this that drives me crazy. Not because a film tells me it will ruin art, or because a documentary shows me it will ruin relationships, or because a book tells me it will ruin our ability to think. I have to step away because I have known all of this for a long time. I have to step away because no matter who is listening, it will never be enough. Not until we've been heard correctly. It all just allows us to remain hidden inside our cages. Hidden inside the prisons we are guards and prisoners of.

The King of Limbs, Radiohead (2011)

I have been trying to word my thoughts on this album for a little over a week. My first thought after hearing the album: beautiful ghost stories in a lovely haunted house. The songs all have this clanging sound. I am so often reminded of the ghost from A Christmas Carol. The chains rattling through the hallways. So, maybe it was the music that made me feel this way. What about the lyrics? Well, I don't know that the lyrics play a part in this haunting. But, Yorke's vocals certainly do. There is this deathly wail and moan in his throat. One half imagines him in the middle of seance and we wait patiently for the voice of the dead to fully form itself. We wait for a clear revelation. It never comes on The King of Limbs.

This may be Radiohead's saddest sounding album. While at the same time managing to be their most humorous. On the opening track, 'Bloom,' Yorke sings quite clearly: "open your mouth wide." And, honestly, this is about the last time Yorke heeds his own advice. Most of The King of Limbs is sung in a quiet grumble. A ghostly wail. A disgruntled grunt. Not to say this is a bad thing. I think Yorke's decision to sing this way really adds an element to the album. In the way Bjork has always used her voice as instrument. Or, in the way PJ Harvey used her voice as instrument on the album White Chalk. Listen to the album middle track, 'Feral,' for proof that Yorke is experimenting with voice as instrument. The song is mostly instrumental other than the sound of his voice occasionally flapping through like the wings of a giant butterfly.

Two songs later, on my favorite track from the album 'Little by Little,' York sings "I'm such a tease and you're such a flirt." Yorke is right. He is a tease. All of Radiohead is a tease. They release albums out of nowhere. Sometimes they ask you to pick the price. Next they have a very specific pricing system. Radiohead loves to tease its fans. And, we fans love to flirt back. Rave reviews. Impatiently waiting for a download. Drinking up the kool-aid. It a great line that really sums up the entire band-fan relationship.

I am not the biggest fan of Radiohead. When I had the chance to see them in concert a few years ago, I decided to pass because I knew I would feel out of place. I have followed their career since the release of OK Computer. I have enjoyed most of their albums. But, I have never found myself bowing down as part of the cult of Radiohead. In fact, my favorite Radiohead album is Hail to the Thief. Most "real" fans find this album to be the least interesting of all Radiohead releases.

It is safe to say The King of Limbs is closest to the previous album In Rainbows. It is a fairly chill affair. Rarely rising above a desire to pick yourself up from the couch to shift to the songs. This is even quieter than In Rainbows. And such a very short album. Some fans have gone so far as to suggest The King of Limbs is only part one of a two part release. I am not sure the album needs a sequel. If anything, it is the sequel to In Rainbows.

Radiohead was smart to release 'Lotus Flower' as the albums first single. The song has the most energy of all the tracks. While at the same time showcasing the vocal range Yorke uses throughout the album. And highlights the musical atmosphere of the other tracks. (The music video is quite a treat. And proves Yorke is the male Tilda Swinton).

There isn't a bad song on the album. Every track works perfectly with the previous and following song. Most of these songs stand alone very well, too. It isn't the most beautiful album, but it surely a very well structured soundscape by a group of great music architects.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper) - 1969

Sometimes you watch the right film at the wrong time. Easy Rider is very much a film about an era. A culture. A film focused on the counter culture. The hippies of the late '60s. A group of people so set on being able to live off the land, to live in a state of constant peace, and the sense of not having to answer to anything. Nature and self as the only two beings of importance. How timely that I would watch this film during a period of intense depression. The feeling of being trapped, caged has been looming over me for months. How do we escape? How do we find freedom? Are these just ideals?

This is the great outsider film. In this film, we are shown two lost souls. Two hippies and the way they interact with society. And the way society interacts back. These two men are standing in for a series of outsiders- women, queers, blacks, artists, etc. Easy Rider is the film of the outsider's American experience. It is lonely. And it is a rough example to witness.

I have read reviews stating the movie is dated. The ending is too heavy handed. I think I disagree, mostly. The ending may be a little heavy handed. But, art has a purpose. A message. In order for Easy Rider to really get the point across, the viewer has to take part in some pretty harsh and painful moments. I only found these scenes to elevate the film into the deeper purpose I felt it wanted to present from the start.

I love road movies. Easy Rider is very much a road movie. The only difference may be the purpose. Most road movies have a definite end result. The characters are always heading from point A to point B. In Easy Rider, while Mardi Gras is mentioned as a pseudo-point B, it is never actually the last place the two characters plan to end their trip. These are road side prophets. Men made mad from drugs.

Easy Rider is filmed in a very New Wave style. Much of the time I was reminded of the films of Godard. Mostly, Vivre Sa Vie and Band of Outsiders. The images had a lot of low grain quality, but were composed in such thoughtful ways. There were clips of images flashed on the screen that wouldn't be experienced until a minute or two later. Many of the images played out like photography. The Americana of it all reminded me of some of the images of William Eggleston (only a little).

My only complaint may be the acting. At times, the acting is a bit off. Much of the film is made up of extras. So, I can't really blame a cast of non-actors for being poor actors. And, on the other hand, the film isn't always about the things being said. On some level, Easy Rider reminded me of a foreign film. This wasn't a movie filled with lots of dialogue. When something was said, it was meant to be heard.

I try to think of the films that really caused me to breakdown in the end. Dancer in the Dark and The Wrestler are the two films in recent history that I recall leaving me completely devastated by the end. Easy Rider is now one of those films. Once I realized how things were going to end, I could only start to cry. And once it happened, I could only break down. Sadly, I had to gather myself up and head off to work. If I didn't have to work, I imagine I could have spent hours in tears.

We are a country that likes to talk. We like to share our opinions. We like to dream big. We like to imagine something more for ourselves. But, in the end, we're scared. We're afraid of change. We're afraid of those who are different. We're afraid of those who force us to question ourselves. Billy and Wyatt wanted to stop being afraid. They wanted to make a new path. We are witness to their mistakes. To their problems. To how removed you might have to make yourself in order to really survive the day to day. Is freedom a reality or just an idea? Easy Rider never really tells you. It only makes you understand how dangerous the pursuit of it can be.


Roseannearchy, Roseanne Barr (2011)

It is a bit shocking that I not only read some of this book. But, that I read all of this book. I don't like non-fiction. I don't like memoir. And, I don't like funny literature. So, for me to have read this book does seem a little bit far fetched. But, Roseanne will forever hold a special place in my heart. I can't name a single woman who has made me laugh or cry as hard as Roseanne has in my life. When I heard she had a new book out, I felt I owed it to myself to experience something new from Roseanne. Roseannearchy is Roseanne's third non-fiction book. I have not read the previous books. I have nothing to compare this book to other than the TV series Roseanne and a couple of her comedy specials.

It seems Roseanne has been quiet for the past handful of years. She has always been blogging, but she has stepped away from the camera a bit. During her time away, Roseanne found a lot of inner peace. For her, it came in the form of religion, conversation, philosophy, and looking inward. Recently, she's appeared again, with intentions of running for president. Roseanne wants the truth to be shared with America. She wants everyone to understand and see through the lies we're being told by our politicians. Of course, this is all part of Roseanne's style of humor. A loud, in your face approach to getting everyone to listen to common sense for a few minutes. Sometimes it works and sometimes it back fires.

I was shocked to see the forward of Roseannearchy was written by Roseanne's first husband. The man she was married to before she became famous and was with at the start of her fame. I always assumed things were bad between the two of them. But, as proof to Roseanne's need to understand herself through her past, it makes sense that their past is brought up and cleaned up in such a mature manner. This is certainly a memoir of growth.

Much of what Roseanne writes about is aging. She does this with her typical blend of humor and truth. I did find myself laughing out loud a handful of times. This is something I rarely, if ever, do when reading. For that, I have to respect Roseanne's book. On the other hand, this certainly isn't the most well written book of the year. Not that anyone would go into this book expecting literature or grand ideas. I most certainly am not holding this to the typical standard of literature. Although, there are moments when it all feels a little too empty. Passages that feel like rambling. A few chapters are dedicated to memories of her childhood. At this point in Roseanne's career, I feel we're all more than aware of her upbringing. And maybe not always interested in reading ten plus pages of the past. But, I understand their placement within the text as a way to show how we really need to look back inside ourselves in order to change ourselves.

I think my favorite parts of the book are when Roseanne speaks about dieting and weight. We are all aware of Roseanne's weight struggles. In fact, her struggles are our struggles. We have all looked in a mirror and wanted to be something else. Someone else. A little thinner and more toned. Roseanne doesn't buy this anymore. With age comes wisdom, they say. It was nice to hear her thoughts on the weight obsession of her past and the way she embraces weight now. We do live in a society where people are bigger, but we are constantly told how wrong this is for them. Maybe it is wrong. But, at the same time, we shouldn't put so much effort into disdain for the overweight when we have so many other problems in our world. Reading Roseanne's passages on weight really struck me. Will they change me? Probably not. But, they'll make me think a little differently for a few days at least.

This is a presentation of ideas and revelations. Roseanne admits she smokes pot to help with OCD and other obsessive traits. She admits to drinking when she writes. Roseanne is never anything more than very honest. And, I will always respect this about her. This is very much not a memoir for anyone who doesn't just adore Roseanne. For those of us that do, it was nice to take part in a brief one sided chat with someone so admired.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

EP, Beth Ditto (2011)

I have been a fan of Gossip for a few years now. I love their earlier work (Movement) and how it seems to come from the Led Zeppelin-esque Black Keys genre of blues alt-rock. And I adore the band's growth. The groups most recent album, Music for Men, was a much more pop influenced album than anything they'd released previously. I heard many fans grew annoyed at this change. It seemed to make perfect sense to me. Beth Ditto is in every sense a pop star. Alright, maybe not every sense... but, it is there. In the way she moves, dresses, speaks.

On hearing Ditto was releasing a solo EP I found my eyes rolling and an annoyed grown coming from my throat. I don't like lead singers that go off on their own to create solo careers. Just stick with the band. What could be so horribly awful that you have to destroy a good thing?

In the case of Ditto's EP, it isn't so much a desire to go solo. The EP is more of an experience to be playful. In 2009, Simian Mobile Disco released the album Temporary Pleasure. One of the best tracks off this album is an incredible dance driven track featuring the vocals of Beth Ditto, "Cruel Intentions." EP is meant as a way for Simian Mobile Disco and Beth Ditto to work together, again. This isn't Ditto living out some solo dream. This is a chance for change without being thought of as giving up on "the Gossip sound."

The first single from EP, and best track, is "I Wrote the Book." The song feels to be very similar to "Cruel Intentions." This is possibly why I love the song as much as I do. The song is about heartbreak. Nothing new. But, her lyrics are sharp and feisty: 'revenge, regret, I wrote the book.' The single comes with a video. Clearly a nod (and slight copy) of Madonna's "Justify My Love" video. Filled with black and white shots of hotel rooms and hallways. Men dancing, prancing. Ditto strutting around. Although, this is certainly the PG rated version of the Madonna video.

My least favorite track on the 4-track EP is "Goodnight, Good Morning." The song has a great start and great first half. But, the song is 7 minutes long. On an album 4 songs long and 22 minutes in lenght, 7 minutes can start to feel a little on the distracting side. Of course, I'm not suggesting the song is bad. Just a little more noticeable that I would like it to be.

The EP is a great example of the power of Ditto's voice and lyrics. The great music supplied by Simian Mobile Disco really adds a new sound to the Ditto history.


Monday, February 21, 2011

Martyrs (Pascal Laugier) - 2008

As stated many times, I am a fan of horror films. Over the past couple of years, I have been reading a lot of articles and reviews about horror films that have been asking 'when is too much too far?' and 'how far are we willing to go for a scare?' These questions arrive after such films as Hostel and Saw started turning horror films into more of a torture porn film. There is something to be said about these questions. That which scared us once isn't always going to scare us. Eventually, we need something a little more intense. Something that goes a little bit further than the last film we watched. So when are we to blame for how far the horror genre goes? As Michael Haneke pointed out in his brilliant Funny Games, the audience is just as much a part of the violence.

Martyrs is a difficult film to discuss without giving too much away. I went into the film only knowing it was being called one of the most violent films in recent history. I only knew enough about the film to get me through what I call the "first act." For everything that takes place during the "second act" was very sudden and I had heard nothing about this film heading in the direction it eventually went. I enjoyed both the first and second act of the film. Although, I do believe they tie together a little too loosely. In the end, the experience overshadows the thread of the plot.

The first act of the film plays out like High Tension. A very intense, confusing, violent confrontation between the audience and the film. We are even handed a twist similar to that of High Tension before the film is half over. This surprise isn't quite that much of a surprise. In fact, it is expected. And, so brilliantly used to distract the audience from asking 'why' everything else is taking place. In fact, the distractions used throughout this film really distract on a level I have never experienced in a horror film.

At the start of the film, we are introduced to a young girl running from an abandoned factory, Lucie. She is clearly a victim of abuse. We soon find out she is only a victim of physical abuse. She was never sexually abused. She is taken into an orphanage where she befriends Anna. As she is growing up, Lucie does not reveal all that happened to her in the factory and she doesn't quite remember who tortured her. But, fifteen years after escaping she spots the image of a man and woman in a local newspaper. She knows these were those who held her captive. Within the first twenty minutes of the film, Lucie is at their door and massacres the whole family. Eventually calling Anna in for assistance.

All of this happens very early on in the film. And, some of this adds to the extreme violence. It is an intense build up. Not exactly anything brand new, but expressed painfully. While at the same time, the cinematography is poetic. Almost unexpected from a horror film. Again, maybe these beautiful moments are used to distract from what has happened and what is going to happen.

I can't say anything more without giving away the film. Perhaps, this is the biggest downfall of the film. The inability to explain and discuss without ruining. It is the type of film that you can only really see once. The first viewing being a complete shock to the viewer (in image and in purpose). What allows this film to rise above being a total gore fest is the message. The heart of the film. The purpose. The big reveal. And, even after one big reveal... we are still greeted with one more by the film's finale. How many climaxes can one film have? Martyrs contains at least three.

After I watched the film I was confused. I was shocked. I was disturbed. Not necessarily by what I was forced to see, but what I was forced to ask and think about. How often does a horror film cause you to really question its purpose? Then to cause you to question your own?