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.


The King is Dead, The Decemberists (2011)

To me, music has always been about memory. Certain bands remind of certain periods in my life. Certain songs of certain people. And, some albums fit so perfectly with certain seasons. If music isn't about memory, then it's about dancing. Two very strange and different criteria for music. But, nonetheless, I have discovered these to be my truths.

I've had two major music phases of my life. The first was in junior high when I discovered my mother's Janis Ian record in the basement (if 'At Seventeen' doesn't fuck you up, you have no heart). I quickly found myself listening to female folk music all the time. This lead to all folk music. This lead to classic rock music. Then, in the middle of college, I switched over to the indie/hipster music. So much of the sound is weighted in classic rock that is seemed to be the natural progression. But, I removed myself from the folk music. Lately, I find myself going back and forth between the two styles of music. Always happy to have the memories associated with all of the bands and songs.

On hearing the first single, 'Down By the Water,' off the new Decemberists' record, I was confused by its simplicity. The last two Decemberists albums have been too large, too over the top, too demanding of attention. The albums felt more like operas than albums. I was concerned for the route the Decemberists were taking. In fact, I had all but given up on them as a band. Gone was the folky, playful games of their first two albums. Growth is good for any band, but running away from yourself is entirely different. So the stripped down single showed a bit of promise.

The whole albums is sparse... for a Decemberists album. Even more sparse than their first albums. This is the Decemberists do Americana. After my first listen, I thought to myself 'a mix of folk and indie music might just be what I need.' And, for a first listen, that was true. But, on repeated listens... the folk comes a little too close to crossing over into country. But, not even country. Just a very bland, invisible sound. The Decemberists have now run so far away from where they ran to in the first place?

This is not to say this is a bad album. It is a boring album. But, for the Decemberists, this might not be the worst thing. They needed to clam down and come back to earth. Perhaps, their next effort will be the perfect mix?

'This is Why We Fight' is certainly a Decemberists top ten song. Alright, probably number ten... but, still, I'm giving them a little bit of credit. It's nice to hear a sad and lovely song from a band that once wrote the most beautiful sad and lovely songs. A bit of a return to form for them. The majority of the songs on the album just kind of float around your ears. It's a great album for background. Or, for cleaning the house. For a long road trip... the lyrics come to you pretty quickly.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

127 Hours (Danny Boyle) - 2010

I hesitate to write my response to this film for fear of coming off as too insensitive. I understand the events of this story are based on a real life event. And I accept the situation is quite impressive. This is very much a survival story in every sense of the word. Many people love a good story of survival. They enjoy the films that seem to imply miracles really do happen every day. But, I am not one of these people. I do not see the miracle of this film or the moral of this event.

The main character, Aron (played by James Franco), is a bit of a jerk. His arrogance and desire to push himself a little further gets on my nerves. Aron is the type of guy I despised in high school and the type of guy I refuse to acknowledge when we're in the same room. I'm not impressed, or interested, in stories of rock climbing/mountain biking/camping. These are individual events. Keep them to yourself.

So, why does Danny Boyle think anyone is interested in 96 minutes of this man's life?
My guess... because Danny Boyle is a sucker for a Hallmark story dressed up in a Hollywood suit. What was Slumdog Millionaire if not a feel good, over the top, unrealistic experiment in sentimentality? So, why not follow up your biggest hit with something that is really going to bring in the masses? A film that appeals to your parents (Oprah loves this shit), to your friends (James Franco is just the sexiest), and to film buffs (Danny Boyle used to know how to make a decent film).

There are many times in the film I felt as if I was watching an MTV movie. The music becomes so distracting. The camera work so unnecessarily gimmicky. And, the plot so thin it could have been carved through faster than Aron's arm. Where is the experience of a film in 127 Hours? Because I missed it if it exists within this film. The only perk to this film is Franco's performance. And, honestly, not even Franco's acting is enough to really give this film merit.

When I first heard about this film, when I first saw previews for this film... I figured there was no way I would sit through the movie. When I was given the chance to see the film for free (and there was nothing else to watch), I decided I might as well give Danny Boyle a third chance (after Sunshine and Slumdog Millionaire). Well, strike three and you're out, Mr. Boyle. When you decide to find your way back to the playful and bleak films (ie, Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, 28 Days Later), I might tune back in. But, as long as you continue to suck the dick of Hollywood and their disatourous attempts at "art house directors as success stories" I will be sure to tune out.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Still Walking (Hirokazu Koreeda)- 2008

What feels like many years ago, and at this point ten plus years ago is many years ago, I saw a beautiful film called After Life. I was in high school and just starting to discover my love of the independent film, the foreign film, the art house film. I would spend free time on websites listing movie releases and seek out the more obscure and interesting titles. At the time, these types of films were very much an escape. My friends and family were more concerned with Hollywood releases and big budget films. I felt a little on the outside. To be honest, I was perfectly content in such a place. After Life took a bit of work to get my hands on. It wasn't until it was released on VHS that I was able to get a copy through the public library. The film was unique in that it dealt with a group of people working in a warehouse. They were in charge of helping the newly deceased pick the film of their life. Only so many memories could be taken to the after life, and it was the job of a small group of people to help the dead stay focused. To help them understand the significance of what they take with them.

When I discovered the Criterion Collection would be releasing Still Walking in early February, I was intrigued to find out information about a fairly recent film release that I had never heard about. Was very excited to discover the director, Hirokazu Koreeda, was the same director as After Life. I was even more excited to discover Still Walking was available on Netflix for instant viewing. So I set out to watch it immediately.

Still Walking is a family drama. A day in the life of a family. The story is about the connections and the disconnections of the modern family in a traditional culture. The family gathers every year, fifteen years and counting, for a dinner to memorialize the death of the eldest son. A drowning incident in which the eldest son saved a drowning victim but lost his own life is all we're ever told of the incident. There is much mystery and unsaid in the film. This never hurts the pace or the story. The simplicity and silence really adds to the emotional levels. Creates the tip-toeing feeling we are so familiar with within our own families.

It would be very easy to compare this film to the films of the great director Yasujiro Ozu. Ozu's greatest film (and one of my ten favorite films) is Tokyo Story. One could easily find many patterns and similarities between Tokyo Story and Still Walking. But, that doesn't really give enough credit to the modernity of Still Walking. And, it makes one think Still Walking lacks originality. I feel this isn't the case. Only that Koreeda has based the film in such a traditional framework through the use of the aged parents as a means to anchor so much of the family traditions in the past.

To use a cliche used too often for films: Still Walking peels away slowly and carefully like an onion. Because Koreeda is so exact and careful, the film never slices right into the story. This leaves the audience without a need to cry. There is a constant sense of sadness and hurt. A feeling of so much loss and regret. But, the story reveals layer by slow layer. Never once does Koreeda force the audience to confront any one pained incident for too long or to examine any motives too closely. This isn't to say the film lacks depth. Still Walking may be one of the most deeply motivated films on the history of a single family in a very similar fashion as Summer Hours and Yi-Yi.

Still Walking deals with all those things we expect of ourselves. What our parents expected of us. What is still to be expected. The film deals with death, past and future. How do we try to connect with those we know we're going to lose? Why do we allow ourselves to become so disconnected in the first place? How do we forgive those who have wronged us? Who we've wronged? Koreeda is never preachy, pushy, or insensitive. Every conversation and silent interaction between the family members is handled so realistically. The film may feel slow to some, but it would be unfair to judge the film on its pace. The film is meant to be a slow process of understanding how a family grows into their current state of disrepair.


Monday, January 10, 2011

The Company Men (John Wells) - 2010

I feel it might be too soon for a film like The Company Men to be seen by a wide American audience. If film history has taught us anything, it is that movie goers use film as a means of escape during rough times. So, how does an audience respond to a film dealing with the current economic crisis and job layoffs? Even two of the characters in the film decide to go see a movie to escape for a couple of hours. How would they feel after leaving The Company Men?

At the same time, not all film is meant as escape. Film is art as much as literature and painting and photography and music. In fact, film is the most accessible form of art. The job of art is to respond to the current cultural climate. To examine the way we live and the way the rest of the world lives. It is all about response. Reaction. The Company Men is so successful because it delicately creates a series of character studies without making the audience feel, or think, "I can't relate to any of these men." In fact, Wells has done something very incredible with his characters. Wells has given them enough story to make them stand out, but not too much so they still have something for the audience to grasp.

I will never make the type of money any of the men in this film made. I will never need to worry about the finances of an entire family, an oversized house, fancy cars, and extravagant vacations. But, I still exist within these worries on the small scale. The enormity of some of these men's finances is scary. Are they as much to blame for their downfall? Do they live beyond their means? Do we, as Americans, refuse to acknowledge we've gone too far? Is Wells speaking big picture here? National debt, etc?

The weakness of the films falls on the wives. Either Wells doesn't know how to write for women, or Wells comes from a very traditional background, or wealthy wives really behave this way... I don't know. Either way, I was uncomfortable with the portrayal of many of these women. One wife refuses to let her recently fired husband come home before 6pm because she doesn't want the neighbors to know he has been laid off. Another wife talks about a weekend getaway to Palm Springs seconds after her husband has informed her of the layoffs at work. Are these women so out of touch? More so than their husbands? Rosemarie De Witt (playing the wife to Ben Affleck's character) is the only likable female of the film. Her role on The United States of Tara is distracting and over the top. In fact, I was annoyed to see she was in The Company Men. But, her clear headed, strong female character was just what this film needed.

Tommy Lee Jones was made for his role in this film. Every sigh, every pained squint of this performance is perfection. The creased aged lines of Jones' face add an additional level of sadness to the character. After watching this film, I believe Jones should receive an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Every role Jones has created feels as though it was a stepping stone to arrive at this role. Truly perfected and heartfelt.

As with any film wanting to reach mass appeal, there is an element of hope to the film. The film's previews claim it is time for America to take back their lives and not only live for their work. I'm not sure the film is successful in this message. But, there is a period of time for these men to slow down. To reevaluate their lives, their families, their futures.

The film is perfectly cast. The acting is superior. The cinematography is beautiful. The film may run along a few cliches from time to time, but in the end The Company Men is still a very rewarding and honest experience.


Sunday, January 9, 2011

Another Year (Mike Leigh) - 2010

How much can we be to blame for the way our friends fall apart? For the damage we watch them bring to themselves day after day? As friends, are we only expected to be a sturdy rock when asked? Or, should we step in and bring an end to the suffering of someone we care for? These are just a few of the questions on my mind after viewing Mike Leigh's triumphant Another Year. Leigh has mastered realism as a film experience. As an art form. No longer does one need to watch for Leigh's mis-steps or seek out complaints. From here on out, Leigh's films are the content within and not all that out of the frame.

Tom and Gerri are presented as a happily married couple with one child, a son. They have a small garden on a shared plot. They tend to the garden together. They travel together. They sip their evening tea side by side. They take turns impressing one another with their culinary skills. And, nightly, they read as they fall asleep next to one another. Their marriage is the stuff of fantasy. But, not necessarily the makings of an excellent film. So, Leigh introduces those within Tom and Gerri's circle- their friends.

The film focuses on two friends, Mary (for a majority of the film) and Ken (for a small portion of the film). Their interactions at dinner parties, a summer bar-b-q, and various other situations. As an audience, we watch as voyeurs in the most silent of fashion. Rarely do we want to laugh too loud or cry too hard. For fear of being noticed and disrupting a scene. How does Leigh and his actors create such intimate moments? Where does their own pain grow from? Their own experiences played out as other people?

Mary, played by Lesley Manville, is one of cinemas most heartbreaking women. Her eyes are always searching the room. Her neck constantly strained and turning. Her fingers must always be in action. And, her mouth always moving. Mary is afraid of the silence, but afraid of what she reveals when she speaks. She's a character of extreme sadness and loss. A woman so driven to prove herself that she is unaware of the danger she has become. Throughout the film, Leigh's camera catches glimpses of Mary on the verge of a complete breakdown. But, it is in the final scene, when Mary sits at the table with a family not her own. She listens to stories of their lives. Their plans for the future. She bites her lip. She lowers her head. She holds back tears in a way we've all done time and time again. Somehow Manville manages to make them seem larger than the everyday. We are watching a woman with no answers try to remember the questions... her purpose... her need to live.

Ken, played by Peter Wright, is an overweight friend of Tom's from college. Ken eats too fast, drinks too much, and smokes too hard. His face and body reveal the mistreatment of himself time and time again. This may lead one to believe Ken is a man unable to express himself. Unable to share the issues causing him to lead a life of such excess. But, he's open. During a late night conversation with Tom and Gerri, Ken breaks down. A sixty year old man weeping in the open. What a rare sight in film or real life. Yet the whole scene is so real and honest. Ken's fear of returning to his home, his job, his routine. And, his fear of giving up the routine. What do we do when we're stuck in a rut? How to we make meaning out of what we do? And how do we find meaning in creating something new for ourselves?

Tom and Gerri are interesting characters. Even though they may not be the film's main attractions. Tom is a geologist. His job is to find out if the ground is sturdy enough to hold future structures. Basically, Tom is meant to find secure foundations. And, Gerri has a similar purpose in her job as a therapist. Again, finding secure foundations for people to function. How is it possible for two people so focused on solid ground to be unable to support their friends? This is where my questions arise in terms of how we relate to our own friends. Are Tom and Gerri not good friends? Or, are they the best type of friends?

In the end, these questions don't need answers. Leigh's film is meant to be an experience in living. A view inside the lives of a small group of people over the course of one year. Who has all the answers? And, what good is there in asking all the questions? Leigh's film is bleak, but filled with humor. It has been a long time since I had such a profound experience with a film. Another Year is certainly Leigh's second best film. If not his best.