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?


Thursday, February 17, 2011

What He's Poised to Do: Stories, Ben Greenman (2010)

When was the last time you wrote a letter and sent it through the mail? Or, mailed a postcard while away on vacation? These are such extinct thoughts to many of us. Instead, we just email or text our friends and families. Everyone is a phone call or a click away. It seems so timely I would come across this collection of short stories as I find myself made more and more afraid by the future of technology. In a world where a generation is growing up with Kindles (aka Robot Books) and other forms of not having to really read a book, it was nice to find a book lost in an idea or concept that is still so close to our fingertips. But, very far behind us.

Ben Greenman writes a beautiful short story. Greenman knows the importance of word choice. Greenman knows how to edit his sentences to be just as precise as someone would want them to be. In fact, there is something almost dated to the prose of Greenman. Can a contemporary really write with such distance while still maintaining an element of emotion with the characters? It always feels as thought authors are picking one or the other. I am not suggesting Greenman is an incredible short story write. What Greenman is though, is a talented short story builder. Greenman knows what is expected and how to structure.

Of the fourteen stories from the collection, I only found myself really drawn to the three of them. The opening story, 'What He's Poised to Do' is beautiful in how simple and confusing the emotion of falling in love with the idea of another life and another woman. The idea of escape without revenge being a motive. This is one of the shortest stories of the collection, but certainly the strongest.

The second story I adored, 'The Hunter & the Hunted' follows a similar idea as the first story. This is the story of an affair. There is something so charming about the affairs in these stories. And, that they are lived on the other sides of these postcards and letters. This sense of diary and revelation. This sense of secret and exposure. I can't fully form the words to explain what I want to say.

The closing story, 'Her Hand' starts out as a history of the events of a woman's hand. What a truly fresh and welcomed concept for a story. By the stories end, we realize this woman is wife to the man from the first story. We see her sadness from both sides- the cheating husband's view and her own aftermath of the affair. How smart of Greenman to make us wait until the final story. How wise to connect these two stories and give the readers a small sense of closure in a collection with very little closure.

Overall, there may be too much distance in these stories. The one sided aspect of the postcards and the personal journeys we are reading about sort of made me feel too cut off from ever really feeling completely lost into the character. Certainly a very strong collection, but not always the type of fiction I am looking to read.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Dynamite Steps, The Twilight Singers (2011)

I first heard The Twilight Singers around 2005 or 2006. A friend and I had spent the evening at the record store and she had heard good things about the band. She purchased She Loves You. An album of covers, songs ranging from Bjork, Fleetwood Mac, and John Coltrane. The album was meant as background for an evening of conversation. But, somehow, the album became a mood for the conversation. Something about lead singer Greg Dulli's voice will always haunt.

Dulli's voice is a mix of Randy Newman's balloon throated sounds and Tom Waits' whiskey ripped voice. A more radio friendly vocalist, but not quite radio friendly enough. Dulli is the man you find at the same bar stool. Nightly. The same dive bar. Nightly. His songs are the lost souls of the late night. Men and women unable to really hold onto themselves or one another. Every Dulli album is pretty similar to the next. Lyrically, vocally, musically... Dulli doesn't really change. But, I like him for all of these reasons.

On Dynamite Steps, Dulli stays on track throughout the entire album. On previous albums, Dulli would occasionally try for a louder sound. A song featuring few guitars and more of a pop-mix sound. The opening track, 'Last Night in Town,' is the only track on the album that attempts this change from the guitar heavy songs. Since it is the opening track, it doesn't stand out as awkward. In fact, it's a great way to begin the album. A little something different.

The fourth track, 'Get Lucky,' has probably been played about thirty times since I heard the album at the start of the week. The song is a perfect Dulli song. The vocals, the music, the lyrics... this is the heart of The Twilight Singers. Following this song, two of the other best songs from the album: 'On the Corner' and 'Gunshots.'

The album doesn't shake or falter following these three great songs. It might mellow out a bit, but it doesn't break its pace. On 'Blackbird and the Fox,' Dulli sings alongside Ani Difranco. While Difranco hasn't been a strong presence in music in the past decade, her voice floats so perfectly alongside Dulli.

Dulli isn't always the great lyricist ("shut your legs and open your alibi"), but only moments later... in the same song, Dulli will surprise you with great lyrics. He's a dark, bar stool poet. He doesn't always sing in tune. At times, it may seem more drunken sing along than well produced album. That is what Dulli does. He creates an atmosphere. Few albums can really change a mood.

Dynamite Steps leaves me introspective and hopeful, but a little bit bitter. The best way to be.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Mechanics of Homosexual Intercours, Lonely Christopher (2011)

It is sad that so few people will enjoy the stories in Lonely Christopher's debut collection of short stories. For one, the author's name is a bit distracting. Secondly, with a title like The Mechanics of Homosexual Intercourse, how many people will be willing to pick up the book? While the book does deal with homosexual themes from time to time, I wouldn't go so far as to call it queer lit solely. Sadly, Mr. Christopher has placed himself into a small fan base. I have to find peace with this decision.

The Mechanics of Homosexual Intercourse is one of two titles released through Dennis Cooper's "Little House on the Bowery" series. I am not always a fan of the selections Dennis Cooper makes. But, I am always interested. I was happy to find Lonely Christopher may be Cooper's greatest release since the series started. Christopher chooses his words like a poet would choose his words. This isn't surprising, as Christopher has previously released a handful of poetry chapbooks. A poet always makes a great short story writer because they know how to be exact. The specific is the realm they write in.

Lonely Christopher is a humorous writer with a dark streak. Most of the characters throughout the stories have strange names (Dumb, Right, Orange, Thorny, etc). Most of these, I was able to understand their naming. In the dark and honest story 'Nobody Understands Thorny When,' the main character's name is Thorny. How funny that this character would grow to be a thorn in the side of both his parents and his child molester? Also, the abductor/molester's name is Normal Chapter. Sadly, the time Thorny spends with this man is the most normal chapter in Thorny's life. And, what about the other boy... the final captor being named Timmy Victim (how often does a little Timmy fall down the well?). This is all very funny. In a very dark, and uncomfortable way.

A couple of the stories take place or make mention of a location called White Dog. In the short story 'Nobody Understands Thorny When' and 'Game Belly,' the reader is made aware of a location called White Dog. So, I was excited to see the final story called 'White Dog.' In hopes of making sense of the town's name and purpose within these stories. But, the final story is about a shopping trip. The strange habit and behavior of the grocery store shopper. It is funny. But, mostly, it is a great experiment in creative writing- make the mundane interesting. So, how does the town of White Dog play into this story? It doesn't. The woman only imagines a white dog inside the store. And, for her, it is the most beautiful and incredible experience of her life. Is this Lonely Christopher's way of making us understand the town of White Dog is really just this piece of fiction created for us to look at things differently?

My two favorite stories in the collection, the title story and 'Milk,' are the most interesting in the collection. They rise above the others. They make use of all the elements Christopher uses throughout the collection, but they felt more complete and complex. In 'Milk,' a horse is found in the family kitchen. And the way Christopher writes these chain of events is truly delightful. Almost like something I have never experienced before. It is strange to explain how the story of a horse in a kitchen could turn into so much, but Christopher does it. 'The Mechanics of Homosexual Intercourse' is a lovely tale of young love and the way we dissect the hell out of our relationships. A very playful, and touching examination of love.

The only stories I did not enjoy in the collection were 'The Pokemon Movie' (which I didn't complete) and 'Game Belly' (which I didn't understand). This is a collection I plan to revisit. A collection I plan to tell others about. This is the work of fiction to beat this year.


Let England Shake, PJ Harvey (2011)

I have long admired the work of PJ Harvey. Few female artists have constantly moved forward in their vocals, lyrics, and musical sound. Harvey started out with an alternative sound. A screaming, lo-fi feminist. Over time, she found a voice that didn't need to be hidden under static and crashing guitar. Harvey found a middle ground. For a few years, she experimented with this sound. Then, it was time for another change. Harvey went for a piano driven record. From there, where was Harvey to go? It seems she has answered these questions this year. With the release of Let England Shake, Harvey is showing she is restless, angry, and still knows where her voice is located.

Let England Shake is meant to be viewed as a song cycle. I discovered this from reading a few interviews and reviews. I listened to Let England Shake for about two weeks before posting this review. After two weeks, I'm still not entirely sure where I stand on this album. In fact, I don't imagine this review will end with a grade. How does one rate something they still aren't totally comfortable with? And, does Harvey want me to be comfortable? My guess... she has never been comfortable and sees no reason why any of her listeners should be.

Harvey's 2000 release, Stories From the City Stories From the Sea, will always remain my favorite of her albums. This is an album about location, New York City. Every track is an anthem to a night, an afternoon, a dream, a certain spot Harvey experienced in New York City. The album makes you forget Harvey isn't American. In many ways, it may be the best album about the city. Does it take an outsider to really see a place for what it is? Harvey doesn't think so. She is no longer singing as an outsider. On Let England Shake, Harvey has written her most (and only?) British album. An album about war. Mostly focused on the Great War. A song cycle about World War I? I know, doesn't sound right for Harvey. This is where all the trouble starts.

Harvey has never been one to shy away from dark, heavy lyrics. On Let England Shake, Harvey continues to throw violence at our ears. Images of soldiers dying, protests, and battles litter this album. Harvey isn't just singing about World War I, she's responding to today's war. She's responding to the way war doesn't change and doesn't change anything. But, at the same time, it isn't this simple. Harvey understands it is much more complicated. Almost an impossible concept to understand.

The album sounds like a collage. Many of the lyrics are overtop music that feels cut and paste. Music that doesn't always feel in the right place. At one point in the album, a war trumpet is heard a few times. It is out of place. Totally distracting. There is something so Dadaist about this album. I thought this after my first few listens. Then reading the Pitchfork review this evening, I was intrigued to see the reviewer mention surrealism and Dadaism as movements in response to World War I. I'm not sure they were pushing this theory far enough to suggest the album borrows from these movements. But, I believe Harvey was very much aware of what she was doing.

Let England Shake isn't one of those albums you sing along to. It isn't one of those albums you tell your friends about. It is one of those albums you respect. The type of album that sticks in your head longer than most albums. Harvey can be funny, serious, and dark. Harvey is an artist on a mission. She wants us to wake up. She wants to shake us. Music isn't always meant to be light. Music has a place alongside the masterpieces hanging in museums. Let England Shake is very much a composition depicting the scene of a battle.

Harvey is working with a war photographer to create a video for each song from the album. As of now, three of these videos have been released. They're sparse. Again, Harvey is letting the music do all the talking. But, this album wants to be noticed. Harvey wants to be heard.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Zonoscope, Cut Copy (2011)

Whenever I encounter a new Cut Copy album, it takes me a while to grow comfortable with the sound. On their first album, Bright Like Neon Love, I was hesitant about the sound because it sounded so middle of the road '80s. I love '80s music, and I love music that aims to sound like '80s music. But, something about Bright Like Neon Love sounded so familiar, it wasn't until I had the album for a few months that I really discovered my love for Cut Copy. On their second album, In Ghost Colours, I was taken back by the dance tracks. Most of the tracks on the album have such a great dance sound and was a little bit removed from the sounds I came to expect. It's great for a band to show growth. Cut Copy certainly shows growth.

Of course, I have grown to completely love In Ghost Colours. I find most tracks on the album to be perfect for summer. When I saw their brief,but fulfilling set at Lollapalooza... I knew they were a band to respect. They knew how to get the crowd jumping. They knew how to reel you in.

Now, their third release. I have given myself a couple of week with the tracks before deciding to form an opinion. Maybe this is still too soon. For now, I'm not as in love with this album as the previous album. On Zonoscope, Cut Copy seems to be creating perfect little pop gems. Not the kind of pop gems your cousins, aunts, and neighbors are going to be familiar with a la Britney Spears. But, the type of pop gem that would not feel out of place on a popular radio station. Or, in the background of a restaurant or club.

If I could sum up Zonoscope in one way, it would have to be Passion Pit's "The Reeling." I am not a fan of Passion Pit. There are a handful of songs I enjoy. For the most part, they're just kind of there. But, their track "The Reeling" is a really great track. And, I feel most of the songs on Zonoscope capture that free spirited, playful, party atmosphere of "The Reeling."

"Need You Now" is the albums opening track and feels like a remainder from In Ghost Colours. The track makes you want to dance and feels full of a lot more energy than the following tracks.

"Take Me Over" starts out sounding like a Men at Work song. The music borrowing heavily from "Land Down Under." At first, this distracts a bit from the song. But, by the tracks end... this need for the humorous reference is forgotten.

"Where I'm Going" feels out of place on the album. The music at the tracks opening reminds me of a Velvet Underground song. I half expect Lou Reed's nasal voice or Nico's too cool for you vocals to come swaying through.

"Pharaohs & Pyramids" is most likely to be the albums successful track. It isn't my favorite track on the album, but it feels as though it has that certain touch that would make for a great radio hit.

All in all, an enjoyable album. Not their best. And, to be honest, I don't think I was finished with In Ghost Colours. I am probably not quite ready for the new album. Maybe by the summer I'll be ready to blare these tracks from open car windows.


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

S/T, James Blake (2011)

What exactly is dubstep? How is it defined? Personally, I'm not fully sure. I read the definitions, I've listened to dubstep artists... but, in the end, it sounds a lot like a garage band doing remixes. There is something lo-fi to the mixing of the track. Maybe this is dubstep. Or, maybe I'm way off. But, a lot of reviewers are referring to James Blake as an singer/songwriter using dubstep. And, I feel lo-fi remixing is a lot of what James Blake has to offer.

If I had to compare James Blake's voice to someone, I'd have to say Antony Hagerty (of Antony and the Johnsons) meets Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver). There is something feminine, soft, and emotional to their sound. If I had to compare the music of James Blake to another artist, I would have to jump straight to How to Dress Well. Both bands deal with emotional lyrics in an R&B style with a bit of a remix. In the case of Blake, the remix is a lot more prominent. In fact, the remix is a lot of the point.

One could easily say James Blake is doing nothing new. He is singing sad songs in a very singer/songwriter style. All he is doing is adding something more to the music and lyrics. This could be the music of the sad white boy sitting in his basement trying to create something a little bit different. Something to get a little more attention. I think I'd take Blake either way. With the dubstep elements or without. There is something genuine in his act.

On Blake's debut album, Blake covers Feist's "Limit to Your Love." The track appears about halfway through the album. It was a nice surprise to hear something so familiar. For the most part, the track starts out sounding like a straight forward remix. But, as Blake shows throughout this record, he likes to add textures and layers to his tracks.

The albums second track, "Wilhelms Screams," is the most beautiful track on the album. Quite possibly the most haunting song I've heard in quite a while. Blake's voice is downright pained and heartbreaking. I can't make it through the song without finding myself ready to cry.

"I Never Learnt to Share" sounds like an attempt at a Marvin Gaye-esque "What's Going On?" The R&B influence of the album is most noticeable during this track (and the final track, "Measurements"). The song only has one line: 'my brother and sister don't speak to me, but I don't blame them.' Has anyone every said so much by saying so little? The repetition doesn't grow boring. As I said before, Blake likes to mature his songs, add more sound as the song moves along. The music Blake continues to add to the track keeps one distracted enough from the repetition.

I can't say I adore this album the same way so many other people claim to love this album. There is something about the music that keeps me at a distance from the lyrics and the voice. The album has a lot of really strong moments, but contains its fill of weaker moments. Not an unpleasant experience, but not always even.


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Blue Songs, Hercules & Love Affair (2011)

I knew going into Hercules & Love Affair's second album that it was never going to compare to their self titled first album. The recycled, but fresh disco sounds of the first album were something to cherish. The album knew how to take itself seriously, but have a hell of a lot of doing so. And, no Hercules & Love Affair song will ever come close to their hit "Blind." "Blind" is sung by Antony of Antony & the Johnsons and sounds like a remix from one of their albums. It's just so perfect. So, where do you go from there?

Have you ever listened to an entire album the first time and thought "not bad?" Then, on your second listen been so shocked at how much you hate the album? This was my situation with Blue Songs. To make matters worse, it was the only CD in my car for three days (as I continued to forget to bring my iPod or another CD with me). By the end of those three days, I found myself removing the disc and throwing it to the other end of my car. It now rests somewhere in the trunk space.

The album starts out pretty perfect. The first twenty seconds of "Painted Houses" sounds like an opener to a song off Depeche Mode's Violator. And, the song sounds less like Depeche Mode as it continues, but it still remains an enjoyable song. Actually, maybe the only really enjoyable song on the album. Although, the second track, "My House," is a pretty nice follow up to the opening track.

Honestly, that is where this ends. The fun lasts for two tracks and then Hercules & Love Affair decides to try something... new? "Blue Boy," the albums fifth track, is filled with enough softcore sounds to make you want to scream. Are they trying to sound adult contemporary christian rock on this track? That is all I can hear. Just because a song is sung in a high voice, softly does not mean it is beautiful or deep (ie any Celine Dion song proves softly sung still leads to meaningless music). The following song, "Blue Song," is pretty mediocre. Not as bad as "Blue Boy," but this means very little.

The albums only other saving grace is the slightly above average "Step Up." The song features Kele Okereke of Bloc Party. The lyrics are repetitive. And, nothing special. But, Kele's voice is always welcomed.

The album ends with "It's Alright." I swear to shit this song is trying to be the next "We Are the World." The lyrics are so forced. The voice is so obnoxious. The music is simple minded. What happened to Hercules & Love Affair?

I can't imagine I'll hate any other album this year as much as I hate Blue Songs.


Sunday, January 30, 2011

Inferno (A Poet's Novel), Eileen Myles (2010)

Many year ago, about ten years ago, I was handed Eileen Myles' Cool For You. It was written in a very interesting style. But, the novel made me sick. There were passages that turned my stomach. As a whole, I found the book to be too much. Too boring, too gross, and trying too hard. I never finished the book. When I started reading reviews for Inferno, I was confused by all the praise. Myles has always received rave reviews for her work, but this novel seemed to be getting even more attention. When I discovered the topic was about writing as much as it was about the writer, I was determined to get my hands on a copy.

Getting your hands on a copy isn't as easy as snapping your fingers. Or, clicking on Amazon. The item is only available through the publisher's website and select book stores. I was lucky enough to find a stack of autographed copies at a cute little bookstore in Brooklyn. I didn't get to start the novel while I was in New York, but I think that is how the book was best started. Leaving the city, up above who knows where and too many miles away from the city, I decided to start on my journey through Myles' version of hell. The novel starts out beautifully. I felt I was arriving back into the city instead of turning away.

I am not a fan of memoir, autobiography, or most non-fiction. It is just a fact I've realized with all the reading experience over my lifetime. But, Myles manages to start Inferno out in such a way that it doesn't feel too personal. Inferno is pushed as fiction, but the main characters name is Eileen Myles. Much of what is being stated is based on or loosely based on Myles' personal life. I am a huge fan of the artist turning themselves into fiction in this manner. It is my personal favorite way to compose short stories, too. I admired how Myles treated herself, her character, her art.

About halfway through the novel there is a new section. A section that plays out like a grant application. At times, funny. At times, a great bit of satire. But, mostly, too personal. Myles has lost the creative path of the first section of the novel. We are now delving into the phases of her work (theatre pieces, poetry, poetry readings, etc). Myles begins dropping names left and right (Patti Smith, Kathy Acker, John Ashberry, Lynne Tillman, etc). And, at first, knowing all these names and the art they are attached to made for interesting reading. Connecting who they were with who they've become. But, it starts to make the reader feel detached. As if Myles wants to show off. Of, thinks she is too cool. All the while she is acting uncomfortable and a bit shy. I just wasn't' buying all of it.

The writing remains beautiful throughout the piece. Her language is lovely. Myles is playful, sharp, and biting. While the first half of the novel is certainly stronger on many levels, the writing never really falls to the side like the story.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Deliverance (John Boorman) - 1972

I recently watched the 2010 remake of the 1978 film I Spit on Your Grave. The original film, and the remake, have often been reviewed as examples of over the top and sick torture porn. I have never seen the original, but am not sure I agree with these statements for the remake. I Spit on Your Grave is meant as a feminist horror film. A woman is raped by four men when she goes to a country cabin to work on her novel. As the cliche 'revenge is a dish best served cold' proves, the woman waits a month before she returns to inflict all kinds of pain and madness on the men who attacked her. I was never disgusted by her actions. I believe we live in a society where rape isn't viewed as the vile act of control that it really is. We all are shocked and upset by it, but little is ever talked about in the way of solution. Alright, all that is a little beside the point... As I watched I Spit on Your Grave, I thought to myself, "why do we never see male on male rape in films?" It only proved my point that we culturally accept rape as a part of life for women. Then, I viewed Deliverance and was surprised by what I saw.

The famous 'squeal like a piggie' scene of Deliverance is often joked about. I knew the reference, but not the entirety of the scene. I thought Ned Beatty was stripped and forced to make a full of himself. I was wrong. Beatty is raped by a man. We aren't shown much of this rape. We hear the sounds and we see a little bit of movement. This may be one of the tiniest rape scenes in film history, but it goes a long way in disturbing the audience. Not only are we not made aware of these situations in films, but we aren't made aware of these situations in real life. We're supposed to be watching a beautiful woman in revealing clothes being raped in a playful, almost overly sexualized way, (although, see Irreversible for an example of the most pained rape scene to make its way to film... I have never sat through the entire scene).

Deliverance plays out like classic literature. There is man vs nature (the men and their canoe trip), there is man vs machine (the men talk about the city, work, etc), and there is man vs man (the men battle their true natures and the true nature of other men). What does it mean to be male? Or, for that matter, what does it mean to be savage? To be an animal? I say 'what does it mean to be male' because this film is focused on the roles of these men (all four play a very stereotyped role: the adventurer, the artist, the lazy man, the education man). One could very easily watch a film like I Spit on Your Grave and ask 'what does it mean to be a female?' The point is, what is inside us... how far can we be pushed... and how do we deal with our responses?

A very revealing scene in the film shows all four men on their hands and knees. They are grunting and growling and clawing at the earth. They are digging a hole for a body. I have never seen humans portrayed as animals so perfectly as in this scene. And, to me, it is so obvious the purpose of this scene. But, not in a too obvious or cliched way.

At times, I was scared. Then, confused. Was I watching a horror film? An adventure film? There are many labels one could give this film. I was surprised by the depth and delivery of the film. All these years I've turned my nose up at it because it stars Burt Reynolds and is so often joked about. But, this is no laughing matter.

The film was made in the early '70s. There are certain effects that are out of date. Out of place. I even thought, at one point, 'this was acceptable back then?' But, this happens few and far between. These moments in no way disrupt the film. In fact, whenever going into an older movie, one must understand there will be differences in what we've come to expect from our movies and what was expected.


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Broadcast News (James L Brooks) - 1987

Today, the Criterion Collection released their edition of Brooks' Broadcast News. When I first read press of the release of this film, I was a bit confused by the collection adding a film that sounded so "rom-com" (romantic comedy). I am a fan of the cast though- Holly Hunter (in anything), Albert Brooks (in Mother), and William Hurt (in The Big Chill). Then, I looked into the filmography of Brooks: writer for the tv series' The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, and The Simpsons, director/writer of Terms of Endearment. I had never seen Terms of Endearment (although, after viewing Broadcast News I did finally see the film), but knew the film was praised by many. I decided I may have been too quick to judge Broadcast News.

The film follows a news correspondent (Brooks), a news producer (Hunter), and a news broadcaster (Hurt). Hunter and Brooks have been working together for years. They're dedicated to their jobs- too dedicated. They lack a focus in their personal life because they believe there is something to be said for their careers. Hurt comes to the scene as a new broadcaster. Hurt reveals to Hunter that he doesn't always understand the news he is delivering. He admits there is a disconnect between the reality and the words. Hunter is against this type of reporting. She is shown giving a lecture on the evils of news becoming a celebrity obsessed tool (how ahead of its time seeing how much news revolves around celebrities these days).

Of course, in films like these, there has to be "the issue." In this case, Brooks likes Hunter. Hunter admires Brooks. Hunter grows to like Hurt. Hurt immediately like Hunter. Hurt and Brooks can't stand each other. Or, more honestly, Brooks hates Hurt. Hurt stands for all those guys who beat him up in high school. All those beautiful people who continue to stomp all over his goals. It sounds a little cliched. And, at times, there is a bit of cliche. But, honestly, this is the era when the cliches are being written. At the time, this felt pretty fresh I would imagine.

The dialogue is very smart. A fast paced, sometimes acid tone to every sentence. There are some lines in this film that just break your heart. For example, a man says to Hunter "It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always be the smartest person in the room." To which Hunter pauses and responds with "No, it's awful." Hunter's pause reveals so much pain and truth. This may be the best acted film of Hunter's career (and I watch Home for the Holidays once every year).

The film is smart. It feels so fresh because it doesn't treat its audience like idiots. We are meant to understand where these characters come from. None of them are bad people. These are people who are just doing what they know how to do. And doing it the best they can. It is rare that a film captures such complicated relationships in such careful and honest ways.


Monday, January 24, 2011

I Looked Alive, Gary Lutz (2003)

To review Gary Lutz, for me, is impossible. Lutz is the master of the short story. But, not in the way O'Henry is considered a master. Not quite in the way Lydia Davis is a master. And, certainly not in the way Joy Williams is a master. All these short story writers are original, creative, intelligent. But, they tend to fall in line with what a reader expects from a short story. A beginning, a middle, an end. Not to say they're formulaic in content, just in style. Gary Lutz has created his own ideas of a short story. They are not to be read by just anyone.

Lutz believes in language. Language comes first in all of his stories. The vocabulary can be overwhelming. Humorous. Over the top. Too difficult to pronounce in your head, or out loud. Lutz is a mad scientist when it comes to language. The sentences are Frankenstein's monster. Pure beauty turned into twisted truths about gender, sex, and the darkest aspect of human connection.

Lutz, in an interview, once said "the body is a novel." This is so true for Lutz's fiction. The characters are all trying to crawl out of their own body and into the body of another. But, the body is where the stories are contained. Where the truths are hiding. Often times dorment for far too long.

Reviewing the content of a Gary Lutz story is what becomes tricky. At times, a character is described for two pages and it is over. Or, the character tries to explain themselves and their actions, but we're never fully certain of what we're trying to be convinced of. Or why it matters. In fact, I don't think the characters care. And, I'm pretty sure Lutz doesn't care. These aren't plot driven stories. These are stories driven by single characters- the words. One will never find a more beautiful description of some of the ugliest things (ie, a pubic hair on a toilet seat) than in a Lutz short story.

I Looked Alive, originally released in 2003, was out of print for many years. When I first was told of Lutz, it was difficult to get my fingers on his fiction. I had to wait a few weeks for the two collections to be sent to the library. But, having discovered a re-print of Lutz's I Looked Alive in 2010 caused me to look through the stories once again. I will certainly be picking up my copy as soon as possible. I'd hate to see these stories go missing for another handful of years.


Kaputt, Destroyer (2011)

Last year, Joanna Newsom treated us to the year's best album before February had finished. What a rarity that an album would set the standards for the year's remaining albums. We are so lucky once again. Kaputt, the newest release from Dan Bejar's Destroyer, is the musical equivalent of poetry as sex and music as escape. It isn't surprising that Destroyer would put out such a great album, but it is shocking the album would be this incredible.

I first discovered Destroyer at The New Pornographer's concert as they toured Twin Cinema. Destroyer was the opening band. At that time, I knew nothing of Destroyer. I knew the lead singer was one of the singers in The New Pornographers, but nothing beyond that. During the entire Destroyer performance, Bejar held a bright spot light that he used to blind the audience. I never understood the expression. I found myself more annoyed than entertained. Then, during The New Pornographer's set, Bejar would come and go from the stage. He fancied himself quite the rock star. He would sing his song and leave the stage. Somehow, behavior I would usually find appalling made me seek out some information on Bejar. I was lucky to do my searching around the time Destroyer's Rubies was released in 2006. Destroyer's Rubies is a perfect album along the lines of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. Not quite a sound for everyone, but poetry set to music.

Dan Bejar isn't one to create songs that you always sing along to. In fact, Bejar can be wordy, long winded, and a bit complex. A strange mix of formal poetry and spoken word. Think Joanna Newsom's lengthy songs and Bob Dylan's voice and style. Bejar warns the listener, on 'Blue Eyes:' "I write poetry for myself." This statement was very true in the past. But, this is quite possibly the first Destroyer album where one will find themselves singing along to lines after only a handful of listens.

Bejar uses the sounds of the late 70s and early 80s on this album. Then mixes a bit of the early 90s throughout. This album isn't meant to sound out of place or comedic. Bejar isn't testing his audience with use of the trumpets and saxophones. With the hushed sounds of the female voice one might expect to experience on a Joni Mitchell album. Instead, Bejar has never been more serious. This is an album paying homage to all the albums Bejar must have loved throughout the years. Bejar set out to make the first Destroyer pop album. I am not suggesting he was fully successful. This album will never be embraced by the masses. It won't be heard on top hit radio. But, as far as Destroyer is concerned, this is very clearly the pop album.

'Suicide Demo for Kara Walker' is a great art piece. Anyone familiar with Kara Walker would immediately recognize the words and phrases used throughout the song. Walker uses very disturbing, in your face images to make one confront racism of the past, present, future, and in yourself. Once, walking through a Walker exhibit, I heard a mid-20s white woman gasp "why does she feel the need to be so over the top about the whole thing?" It seems the exact response Walker would have loved. And, Walker gets to speak to another audience through this song. These lyrics aren't the lyrics of Bejar. Instead, Bejar and Walker worked together on the lyrics. While one could imagine it being a stream of conscious song matching the images Bejar saw while walking through a Walker exhibit, instead Walker created a cut and paste lyric sheet.

It would be impossible to pick a favorite line from the album. There are so many funny moments ("he doesn't see why Mary Jane from down the lane went insane"), moments of honesty ("chasing cocaine through the back rooms of the world all night"), and lyrics of poetry and pain ("a savage night at the opera, another savage night at the club. Let's face it, old souls like us are being born to die").

One could make complaints about the albums dated sounds, or the too complicated and rambling lyrics. One could find irritation in Bejar's nasal delivery of the songs. But, one would be wasting their time on the criticism. The chance of any album this year being as ambitious and fully realized is pretty slim.


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: The Musical (Belasco Theater)

It has been almost a month since I saw the musical production of Almodovar's film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The musical has so much happening, I still don't know where to start. Hearing the film was going to be turned into a musical made me ask "how?" And, after seeing the production, I still have to ask "how?" The film is so busy and silly, I couldn't imagine a cast pulling off the jokes and the charm of Almodovar's film. To be honest, they don't pull it off. They kind of create their own manic experience and interpretation of the film. Had I never seen the film, I may have enjoyed the musical more. But, knowing Almodovar's style, I could only be a little disappointed. The directors seemed uncertain of how far to push the camp of the original. Just when it feels like they're pushing it too far, they try and make a serious moment out of the campiness.

Patti LuPone isn't pushed far enough in this production. LuPone's character, Lucia, seems a little too acted. The craziness and desperation of the original character is kind of lost. The audience ends up a little confused at the woman's situation. Without the film as background, one is expected to connect a lot of dots on their own. There are two highlights for LuPone, though. At the end of the first act, LuPone and the rest of the female characters are pulled up on ropes and dance around, twirl around, spin around, a few feet off the ground as they sing 'On the Verge.' It is really the guttiest moment of the show. The only time the show feels it reaches the zaniness of the film. LuPone's "big" moment arrives mid-way through the second act during her number 'Invisible.' 'Invisible' ends up being the only song that stuck in my head after the show ended.

Sherie Rene Scott is a mess in the production. Her acting comes and goes. Her campiness is taken too seriously. Her accent ranges from too heavy to non-existent. Scott has a beautiful voice (see The Last Five Years), but she is going for slapstick here and she is lost in her inability to create a complete character.

Laura Benanti was the scene stealer throughout. She played the dumb model to perfection. Never once out of character- when singing, dancing, acting, or running around. At times, the character was more caricature than personality, but that is alright for this character. Benanti's Candela is only meant as a comedic presence. Benanti outshines LuPone with the humorous 'Model Behavior' during the first act.

The set is pretty basic. The colors not quite bright enough. But a constantly moving foreground and background keeps the audience watching. This is the closest the stage shows comes to the film. Almodovar loves his bright colors and his demand of you to constantly be watching. The back of the stage always has projected images moving left to right, up and down. Never really distracting, but not always necessary. And, at times, used more than needed.

When I heard the show was closing after only a 2 month run, I was sad to think a soundtrack would never be released. But, after doing a little bit of searching, I discovered there is a recording planned for the middle of Spring. Women on the Verge... is certainly not the greatest musical experience. But, it is something fun and unique. The script and songs need a little bit of work. A few characters need to be trimmed down (Brian Stokes Mitchell's Ivan, mostly). I would have recommended the show to those who are fans of the film and interested in seeing a musical in the early stages of its career.


Friday, January 21, 2011

Kiss Each Other Clean, Iron & Wine (2011)

Kiss Each Other Clean marks Iron & Wine's 3rd full length release since the success of 2004's Our Endless Numbered Days. I was in my final year of college when Our Endless Numbered Days was released. I was at the point in my music interests that fell between the indie music I preferred and the the folk music of my past. Iron & Wine was the perfect hybrid. The music was mostly mellow folk and the lyrics fit into a very contemporary world. A hippie's view of love and nature. I was smitten. To this day I still find tracks on the album to be flawless. Sadly, Iron & Wine never matched this album. A year after Our Endless Numbered Days, the EP Woman King was released. The title track from the album is one of Iron & Wine's greatest songs, but that seemed to be the last of anything to get excited about from Iron & Wine.

Yet, I still found myself anticipating the release of Kiss Each Other Clean. And, I'm not going to lie, I kind of think the album title is disgusting. I can understand the loving nature of the title, but then I just start to think too much into the title. And I kind of gag. But, this really has nothing to do with the album review.

The first two tracks start out a bit disappointing. The opener, 'Walking Far From Home', is alright. It's a little bit distorted. A little bit bland. The second track, 'Me and Lazarus', just isn't interesting. These songs want to be Iron & Wine songs with a more upbeat sound. In fact, it sounds like Samuel Beam is trying to create an album that sounds dated. Although, I'm not sure how far back he's trying to date himself. 80s? 90s? If you want a new album with a perfect throwback to sounds of the past, check out Destroyer's Kaputt (review coming soon).

The only successful old school throwback is on the albums third track, 'Tree By the River.' The song starts out a little lame. A chorus of high pitched 'la' (or something similar). But, quickly the song picks up. Before I knew it, I thought I had turned on a Carly Simon album. It isn't spot on Carly Simon, but there is enough present to remind me of her. At first, I thought maybe one of Joni Mitchell's 1980's songs, but realized it was Ms. Simon. Even Beams voice comes close to Simon's. 'Tree By the River' is the albums second best song.

The albums greatest song, and easily added to the list of my favorite Iron & Wine tracks, is 'Rabbit Will Run.' It has the fast paced vocals and the bouncing music of 'Woman King.' Maybe it isn't fair to love a track because it reminds me so much of another track. It is the only track on the album to stand out. Lyrically, the song paints quite interesting images. If Beam could have focused his album, I like to imagine more of the tracks could have matched this one.

'Big Burned Hand' is Iron & Wine meets Blues Traveler meets Dave Matthews Band. And I don't mean any of this in a good way. It made me wonder, when did Iron & Wine become the band for the frat guys? All those frat houses, in between hazing ceremonies, get together, share a beer, and show their soft side while drunkenly singing along to Iron & Wine? Hey, it's a thing. DMB has survived off of this crowd for years. I hope Mr. Beam can be successful in this crowd.

The closing track, 'Your Fake Name is Good Enough for Me,' is as decent a closing track as one could expect for this album. The song starts out pretty fast, but a little bit stripped down. Quickly it picks up instruments. More and more find themselves in the song. Not all of these instruments work, but I like the messy sound they all create. It is nice to see Beam move away from the cleanliness of what is expected. As the the song comes to an end, it really all feels like waves crashing together. And, then the lyric "we will become. Become a disco ball." So out of place on an Iron & Wine album. But, I love it.

Certainly not a great Iron & Wine album. But, with a few new songs to add to the Iron & Wine favorites, it serves a purpose as something new.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

By the Hedge, Minks (2011)

There are so many bands who want to sound like another band. I hate to think Minks are one of those bands. But, after many listens, there is no other way to see the album. By the Hedge is Joy Division meets garage band meets the xx. All great things. Well, maybe not the garage band part, but Joy Division and the xx are perfectly great bands to wish to emulate. No harm in trying. And, in fact, Minks do a pretty good job of never sounding like they try too hard to be another band. One can't always expect originality. So, I've found a very happy medium with this album.

The albums opening track, 'Kusmi,' is rather tepid. It's a bit of a swaying 80's pop song, but quieter than one might expect. It certainly introduces the listener to "the sound" of Minks. The lo-fi whispers of many of the tracks. The album picks up on the second and third tracks, 'Out of Time' and 'Life at Dusk.' Both tracks remind me a little of the Jesus and Mary Chain. 'Out of Time' is one of the albums best tracks. The choruses are folded into one another in what feels like a mellow, repetitive loop.

The albums best two tracks are 'Funeral Song' and 'Indian Ocean.' 'Funeral Song' is most like Joy Division. In fact, even Minks couldn't deny the Joy Division influence on this track. 'Funeral Song' is the first track I heard from Minks. It was released as a single a few months back and got me really excited for their full length album. Of course, 'Funeral Song' isn't quite the best representation of the album as a whole. 'Indian Ocean' is an incredible instrumental track. The only instrumental track on the album. I'm not usually one to enjoy tracks sans lyrics, but 'Indian Ocean' really pulls me in. The guitars sound like waves. The track would fit perfectly as part of a very emotional scene in a film.

'Bruises' and 'Boys Run Wild' are the albums other two great tracks. The sounds of Joy Division are full in 'Boys Run Wild.' The track begins as though it should follow the final song of Closer. 'Bruises' may not be a great song, but it follows the annoyingly peppy, and Belle and Sebastian-esque, 'Cemetary Rain' (certainly the weakest and most skipped track on the album).

The album closer, 'Arboretum Dogs' is a haunting finale. Certainly makes the listener wish to start the album over for a handful of repeat experiences. It isn't often that I find myself listening to a new album, on repeat, so early into my time with the album. But, Minks grabbed my attention and left me wanting a little bit more. Perhaps, some of that more I want suggests a weakness within the album. The constant feeling of 'just a little bit more, please?'

While not the strongest album I've heard in awhile, By the Hedge is interesting enough to pique my attention and to keep it.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance) - 2010

I have always viewed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as our generations first real love story. After seeing Blue Valentine, I think I was a bit off on my judgement. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind may be our generations first fairy tale love story. Blue Valentine may be our generations most true and raw love story. This is not to compare the two films. I will always hold Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in very high regards. I am only making a comparison based on the films view of contemporary love. Gone are the days of romance as witnessed in The Philadelphia Story, or most Katherine Hepburn films. Today, audiences want over the top humor (the horrid rom-com) or something painfully too close to home (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Blue Valentine).

When does the relationship start to break? Is there a way to point out the exact spot when the problem began to split up the couple? And, is there ever just one problem? Or, is it a feeling? Is it the passing of time? When my first relationship ended, my partner and I spent a great deal of time trying to pin point the moment the end started. We were never able to find that point. I think it is safe to say that point can never be found. In fact, that moment doesn't exist. Relationships are a lot more complex and messy than we'll ever understand. Blue Valentine is willing to admit all of this.

Blue Valentine reminds me of a novel I read early in 2010, A Happy Marriage. The book, much like the film, jumps back and forth between the beginning of a relationship (the happiest moments) and the end of a relationship (the most painful, but most honest moments). In the novel, one half of the couple is dying. So, there are differences. But, the tone of two people when they recognize the end... it so drastically causes changes in your every day.

The film feels a lot like a play put on the screen. There are certain conversations, actions, and over the top gestures that don't always feel genuine enough. The action, the plot devices, aren't always realistic enough with other parts of the film. At first, this bothered me. I noticed the irregular behaviors. I quickly realized the significance of these changes. It is difficult to really involve yourself into the thoughts and realities of two strangers for two hours. Using play-like dialogue and actions allows for the audience to understand what is taking place. We are so quickly forced into the situation, the couple's past and present. What started out feeling slightly out of place, ended up making the film a much more compelling experience.

The soundtrack is beautiful. Grizzly Bear plays the instruments and sings. The soundtrack is basically a heavily instrumental version of Grizzly Bear's Yellow House. No complaints here. The music fits so perfectly in every scene. It never once steals the scene, but always creates more layers of atmosphere. The camera work creates a gritty film experience. The camera moves and shakes a bit. As if one is watching home movies. Or, a documentary. The flashbacks to the past are filled with gray tones and lots more shadow. I love the way the colors are used because the happier time period isn't necessarily brighter.

I feel most people will watch this film and want to blame someone for the relationship failing. I am very much one of those people. Cindy (Williams' character) feels the most removed of the couple. She seems to have given up before she ever starts. A character so afraid of falling out of love that she can't bring herself to ever fall in love. She uses the relationship of her parents as a guide. She saw their unhappiness and hate. She wants so badly to avoid the same life as her parents. It is sad to finally come to terms with how much the relationships we witness as children will go on to shape our future relationships. We can run and fight against this fact as much as possible, but there is a truth in this.


Friday, January 14, 2011

Edward Hopper: Modern Life/ The Whitney Museum of Art, October 28 - April 10

Edward Hopper's art does not come from my favorite art movement (abstract expressionism), but I have always had a large response to Hopper's work. Hopper is considered a realist painter. Realism is one of my favorite movements of literature (Zola, Flaubert, Balzac, etc). And, I love films based in realism (Mike Leigh). Walking through the exhibit at the Whitney, I was struck by my inability to ever really think through the art of the realist painters. Having never spent any time working my way through a realist art catalogue, I was pleased to see the Hopper exhibit was filled with Hopper's art and other pieces of realist paintings to have inspired or been inspired by Hopper.

I was lucky enough to walk through the Whitney on a day one of the guides was giving a free tour/lecture of the Hopper exhibit. I am usually quick to dismiss the tour guides at art museums. They are typically filled with very bland details of an artist's life and are never too giving on the methods of the painter or the history of the piece. On a rare chance, I found myself in the gallery with a tour guide willing to share interesting information. I did not spend my entire time listening or following the guide and her group. Instead, I stepped into the lecture from time to time just to make sure I was on the same page. And, to learn something new.

The gallery begins with a self portrait of Hopper as a young man. The exhibit end with a self portrait of Hopper as an older man. I think this is an incredible way to bookend an exhibit. Art is so much the expression of the artist. To have the opportunity to see the way an artist viewed themselves is always an incredible experience. It allows one to understand the way the artist viewed the world, too. If the artist transforms themselves into something unrecognizable, clearly their view of the world may be a little off. In the case of Hopper, it was almost a photograph. Promising the viewer the paintings still to come were going to contain some very personal moments filled with life.

One of my favorite paintings, the above piece (New York Interior) is delightful in it's humor and sadness. The humor comes from the way Hopper is playing with the images of Degas' paintings. The use of dancers in Degas' paintings are always so welcoming. Degas considered himself a realist painter, but was considered an Impressionist painter. Their certainly are many elements of realism to Degas' works. Hopper has used these elements to his own benefit in this painting. The audience is not allowed in this time around. We are no longer invited into the dancers world. This is something Hopper loves to portray in his paintings. Hopper's work is very distant, while at the same time feeling very familiar.

What has now turned into my favorite Hopper painting, Soir Blue (above image) was the highlight of the exhibit. The moment I walked into the painting I was overwhelmed by the sense of story taking place. There is such a dialogue in this painting. And how amazing that our most silent form of art can be so overwhelmingly loud. The painting is a mix of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. There is a lot of humor and sadness in this painting (as with most of Hopper's work). I stared into this painting and wondered how it had not inspired a film, or a novel, or a play, or a short story collection. (Of course, this is my next project... hopefully).

The work of Hopper is intense. We are treated to nude women with longing glances out windows, off of porches, and into a world we can't quite see. But, that we are very much a part of. We are shown homes living in shadow and light. Dancers in a private ritual we are not fully welcome to experience. Hopper's a master at the mystery of the everyday. The ability to turn the most mundane, routine moment into a philosophical examination of our meaning and purpose.