3rd Quarter or So of 2014
I feel pretty caught up at the moment, and I’m going to be seeing four or five movies in the next week at the New Orleans Film Festival. None of these picks are as controversial as RoboCop was last quarter, but I liked what I liked.
1. Boyhood- Richard Linklater
The term “four-quadrant” comes from business, so it usually scans as cynical. But Boyhood is four-quadrant in the best possible sense because I can’t imagine a man, woman, young person, or old person who would not like it. I guess you could say that it’s too long (and you’d be wrong). Or you could say that there’s one moment in a restaurant late in the film that is bizarre and unnecessary. (You would have more of a point there, though I like the validation it gives to a character—even if I don’t like the moment itself.) But to walk out of Boyhood and think that it was garbage? I don’t see that happening. Richard Linklater is a middlebrow magician whose most experimental films are still accessible and whose most conventional films are still audacious, so it makes sense that the signature work that has eluded him for twenty-three years is as simple as it is ambitious.
Who cares about broad appeal though? Boyhood appealed to me specifically. I loved how there were no obvious consequences—how a kid swigging alcohol before driving doesn’t equate to a tragic crash, just as it doesn’t 99% of the time in real life. I loved the way it showed how pop culture helps us to process time. I loved the specific brand of dickhead embodied by the stepfather character’s pleated shorts and “what did we say about chores?” Here’s what you can do with a nearly three hour movie composed over twelve years. You can generate authentic changes in a character that only epics even attempt. For example, I spent the first half stuck on the realness, wishing Ethan Hawke were my own rakish dad. In the second half, he becomes an old fart like we all do, and his “plenty of fish in the sea” advice gets more weary and bitter. We’re supposed to like him less, and the film isn’t afraid to end on that downswing. In the months ahead, I’m sure there will be some kind of backlash, but I have to remember that it’s okay to be overjoyed by something.
2. Like Father, Like Son- Hirokazu Kore-ada
As far as the nature versus nurture debate goes, Like Father, Like Son is on the same level as In Cold Blood. You probably could have asked me some basic questions about the duty and privilege of family, and my answers would have been different before, during, and after watching the film. How often does that happen, especially as a part of such an elegant and affecting overall vision?
Although the Ryota character threatens to become a workaholic caricature, he works as part of a collection of people who seem so bound by the immediacy of the present moment that they’re almost powerless. (Kore-eda’s eye also understands the brutal guilelessness of children and the way they can make adults feel so weak.) The characters have big decisions to make, but they make them the way we do: heavily, hesitantly, over the course of months. The film gets a lot of mileage out of the restraint and obedience associated with Japan, but it’s universal in that sense of contemplation. Kore-eda’s direction is never showy, but he fills the frame with information that conveys what the script is too dignified to spell out completely. I’m reminded of an image of father’s and son’s chewed-up fast food straws, as if to suggest that even our most banal behavior is passed down.
3. Starred Up- David Mackenzie
When the young protagonist of Starred Up challenges the most hardened, assimilated criminal in his entire prison, that elder tells him, “You remind me of myself when I was your age.” And, no matter what the intent was, that’s one of the most damning things someone can say to a youth offender in prison. It’s as if he’s saying: “You may think you’re a person, but this place will prove that you’re a pattern.” It doesn’t help that the boy’s father, also a prisoner, is another possible model.
That father is Ben Mendelsohn, who pads his resume with another menacing supporting showcase. I was trying to connect the dots of his streak of pathetic, damaged psychopaths (Animal Kingdom, Killing Them Softly, The Place Beyond the Pines), and the quality that unites all of those films (and definitely this one) is a sense of volatility. All of them have sudden bursts of violence that ignite from innocent circumstances. And his performances color those films quite a bit—he’s always bouncing off the frame, right on the edge of danger. But he’s the best thing about all of those other entries; Jack O’Connell is the best part of this one. O’Connell has more range than Mendelsohn, and he displays all of it here. A prison will exploit any emotion it can from an inmate, so O’Connell is never approaching a scene in a straightforward way: He’s often playing a studied hardness on top of an authentic emotion. I think anyone can play “afraid,” but O’Connell is asked to play something like “jaded insolence masking anxiety.” And if he wasn’t able to project an innocence onto some of the reprehensible things his character does, the entire film would have fallen apart.
Starred Up is almost too immersive at first, in both the point of view and the impenetrable cockney dialect. It isn’t until about the forty-fifth minute that we settle in with any narrative goals. Once we get there though, there’s a constellation of brutal power dynamics to explore. I’m not sure I’ve seen a British film this vital and wrenching since This Is England, which, hmmm. Jack O’Connell was in.
4. Ida- Pawel Pawlikowski
Wanda, the cynical aunt whom our nun-in-training protagonist has just met, tells her of sex: “You should try…otherwise what sort of sacrifice are those vows of yours?” When that line was spoken, I mostly agreed with the aunt. (Would that belief in experience place me as an accessory to sin?” the margins of the film might ask.) When the film was over, I was no longer sure. As I was with Like Father, Like Son, I tend to be impressed by anything that provokes that sort of conversion.
The film plays with the idea of innocence versus experience through that relationship between Wanda and Ida. Both actresses convey an assurance, and for most of the running time, the script doesn’t tip the scales toward either one. It helps that Ida is not a truly selfless person. The type of life she wants, one silently cloistered in a convent: Is that engaging with the world in your own way, or is it obviating the need to do so? If you make that choice, is it more a part of your identity than the things you can’t control, such as your jerky personality or your Jewish ancestry? Can you control your jerky personality after all?
These are complex questions, but Pawlikowski keeps most elements of the film simple. The 4:3 frame, along with the black-and-white cinematography and the resistance to non-diegetic music, recalls Bresson; and the film has that same emotional directness that he valued. The camera doesn’t move until the last two scenes, and by that time, Pawlikowski can take me wherever he wants.
5. Life Itself- Steve James
Early on in Life Itself, the documentary adapted from Roger Ebert’s memoirs, one of Ebert’s friends marvels at how quickly Ebert could collect his thoughts and produce a polished review—thirty minutes, he claims. Ebert’s reviews felt like that: As thoughtful as they were, they were of-the-moment, without second-guessing. And, most of all, the reviews always got, quite quickly, to the essence of their subject, which Ebert was able to extract with clarity and perceptiveness. So it’s fitting that Steve Jame’s all-access film about the man does the same thing. It gets to the heart of who Roger Ebert was without making too much of a fuss about itself. The big man would have been proud. (For what it’s worth, I’m on the record about how much the guy influenced me, so getting to learn more about his personal life was a treat.)
I also liked Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy and Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain. Home stretch now, guys. Bring on the Oscar stuff.
Best Song of September:
OG Maco feat. Key!- “U Guessed It (Extended Version)”- Not every rap song has to be densely lyrical, but nothing should get by on swag alone either. We’re actually missing out by harvesting rappers into one pile or the other, and, in fact, we used to expect both qualities from artists back in the nebulous Golden Age that I’m dancing around. Here’s what every hip-hop song should have though: a vocal performance. If you transcribe the lyrics to “U Guessed It,” nothing would leap off the page, and if I were to rap it to you, you would never want to hear it again. But that’s where someone as animated as OG Maco, a 2014 answer to Ol’ Dirty Bastard, comes in. He yelps and screams and whispers and mumbles, oscillating between casual disdain and clenched indignation. I LOVE MAKONNEN, another Atlanta weirdo, garnered last month’s top spot, so this might be a trend. I hope October offers a new guy who is garage selling ten different unforgettable melodies across one verse.
Best Album of September:
Prince- ART OFFICIAL AGE
Gerard Way- Hesitant Alien
That’s right, gang. I’m going New Yorker on you with a dual review. Both of these albums are by once-and-future kings who have reinvented themselves by following only their own artistic whims. Prince’s output has always been difficult to harness because it’s so amorphous and prolific. (For these purposes, I’m going to ignore PLECTRUMELECTRUM, the jammy yin to ART OFFICIAL AGE's yang that came out on the same day. Maybe I just don’t respond to guitars anymore.) Who knows what’s going on out there in the purple mansion, how much Prince is paying attention to, how much he buys into his own legend? As it turns out, on the sexy, charming ART OFFICIAL AGE, he’s inhaling all of the culture except his own hype. Is that a trap drum? Is he pitch-shifting his voice?Does the chorus of the best song come from an Internet meme? But it doesn’t feel as if he’s grasping for relevance. It just feels like a groovy Prince record with visceral percussion.
Similarly, Gerard Way, who taught himself to sing across three My Chemical Romance albums*, emerges fully-formed with Hesitant Alien. It’s not exactly original: Way wears his fuzzy, glammy influences on his sleeve. (And even thatsleeve has a touch of Iggy Pop.) But he’s being the change he wants to hear on the radio. Hesitant Angel is a cohesive album of soaring harmonies, unstoppable momentum, and real stakes.
Honorable Mentions: The hook clearance of Rich Gang’s The Tour, Part 1; the honed grind of Jeezy’s Seen It All: The Autobiography; (as well as the virtuosity of his “Holy Ghost (Remix)” with Kendrick) and Ryan Adams’ winning self-titled. Honestly though, I mostly listened to Copland this month as I stared down the barrel of the grading that made this so late.
*- No shots. All of those records are great in their own ways, but at least until The Black Parade, their greatness had little to do with singing.
In honor of Weezer’s hideous new LP Everything Will Be Alright in the End, this is: “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong.”
David Fincher- “And the Other Way Is Wrong”
Best Song of August:
I LOVE MAKONNEN- “Club Goin Up on a Tuesday”- August had songs that were more meaningful (Ms. Lauryn Hill’s “Black Rage”) and more propulsive (Twin Peaks’ “Mirror of Time”); but no song had me humming it at 5:00 AM on a weekday like “Club Goin Up on a Tuesday.” I can’t claim to enjoy I LOVE MAKONNEN’s brand of warbly weirdness across an entire EP. He kind of sounds like Robert Smith on lean, and it gets tedious over time. But this song captures a blessed haziness, as well as an authenticity, that I can’t resist. For example, there’s the line ”My P.O. think I’m in the house / Don’t give a damn ‘bout what she think.” Call me sexist, as many people already have, but my mind still flashes to a man when I hear about the tough profession of parole officer. I LOVE MAKONNEN finishes with the feminine pronoun so that I know it’s real. The version without Drake please.
Best Album of August:
Rustie- Green Language- ”Punishing” is the first word that comes to mind when I consider Scottish producer Rustie’s follow-up to his admittedly dense debut Glass Swords. That’s a weird descriptor that a lot of people would not want out of an album. It’s okay to want something less relentless and undeniable. But the sounds that Rustie crafts on “Raptor” or “Velcro,” as well as the less successful half with vocals, are so punishing. They’ll address a part of your speakers that has not been touched. They will freak out your dog. They will make you believe in the guttural ghost of dubstep, and they will force you to define it as something else.
Honorable Mentions: Lucki Eck$’s dilatory “Count on Me,” J. Mascis’s wise Tied to a Star, Ariana Grande feat. Zedd’s era-ender “Break Free,” Riff-Raff’s ingenuity at the VMAs.
Robert De Niro’s auditions for the role of Sonny in The Godfather. The part was, of course, ultimately given to James Caan—while De Niro would later go on to play the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather: Part II.
I’m not prepared to say whether or not I “like” “Shake It Off,” Taylor Swift’s new slice of Toni Basil-core, but I’m sure I’ll get a couple hundred listens to make up my mind. That is, if someone can like Taylor Swift in the same way that he likes other music anyway. Tay-Tay’s a force of nature at this point. She just is, and she’s going to do whatever she wants regardless of what you like. No one asks if you like the sun.
In the livestream that introduced “Shake It Off” and its accompanying album 1989, Swift said: “People can say whatever they want about us at any time. The only thing we can control is our reaction.” And Swift is so far into the second tape of Casino that no one is going to call her out on that illogical hubris. Of course, I understand what she means: She has built such a well-known persona as a kiss-and-tell songwriter that, no matter how she grows as a person, she’ll be scrutinized and condemned by some vultures no matter what.
But that kind of finger-pointing averts the choices that she does have control over. She doesn’t have to be a vulture herself. She has control over the personas that she appropriates in her videos, and they don’t have to recall Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga. She doesn’t have to sack-dance on two figures whose relevance she has outlasted.
She doesn’t have to swallow up hip-hop culture, and she definitely doesn’t have to keep projecting the aw-shucks, regular girl schtick. A large part of the video is Swift performing poorly at rhythmic gymnastics or cheerleading or ballet because she’s soooo clumsy, just like you or me. Or maybe—just maybe—because none of those pursuits are her job, so why would we expect her to excel at them? Why not show her, like, doing a bad job of working as a metallurgist? It would be just as arbitrary. And it wouldn’t have the added implication that all of those other traditionally feminine activities would. By depicting herself with a fumbling femininity physically, she is able to further the lyrics’ idea that her critics think she’s failing in her emotional maturity as a woman. Not that she can control anything beyond her own reaction.
In some ways, Swift can’t help herself from exposing her own phoniness, and that’s part of what makes her endearing.* We all know that Taylor Swift is not terrible at being a woman. Look at how exquisite the tailoring is on this waist. But if she can cement an idea into a song and take ownership, then she can make it so. That’s why, to her own detriment, she writes so publicly about break-ups. She actually believes that the truth of her music will outweigh any rupture of the social contract.
In that sense, she has met her perfect match in Mark Romanek, the director of this video. So far I’ve discussed her as the auteur of this whole shebang, but Romanek is an able co-conspirator. Both of them are master craftsmen under the impression that they own everything. While Swift’s appropriation often can be excused as the trying-on experienced by most young White girls in America*, Romanek’s experimentation is a bit more pernicious, and he excuses it with his own artistry. “Oh, the entire ‘Got ‘Til It’s Gone’ video is repurposed Malick Sidibe photography? I was just really inspired by it. ‘Can’t Stop’ owes everything to the one-minute sculptures of Erwin Wurm? Well I’m such a big fan of his that I guess I just internalized them.” The guy is great at what he does. He cuts into movement better than anyone else cuts out of it. You might be able to argue that he invented speed-ramping. But he’s a cultural thief all the same.
I’ve been so interested in these other wrinkles that I haven’t even mentioned the most notable aspect of the track, obvious from the first note. It’s a shiny pop song. Although Swift has been transitioning out of country for half a decade, “Shake It Off” is a clean break. It’s a Max Martin-assisted code-switch. And even if it harkens back to her detractors, it’s more sugary and less confessional than most of her other work. Now what does that mean? Maybe nothing. Maybe it’s just a superficial but provocative lead single, and the rest of the album (named, after all, after the year she was born) will be confrontational, tortured, and raw. You know, like every Eminem album cycle ever.
There’s another possibility too. “Shake It Off” is, on its face, an empowered kiss-off to the haters, but it’s also an implicit retreat from vulnerability and guitar. If the songs become anthemic jokes, then they actually validate the idea that she shouldn’t be writing about her own pain. Thus the song about how wrong her critics are becomes a sad admission that they were right all along. I can deal with Taylor dropping a pom-pom. I don’t know how to react to the aural equivalent, her suspicion that she has outgrown the way that she got us to love her. Then again, the only thing we can control is our reaction.
*- Her misplaced candor could make for some hilarious SNL skits. In a way it’s a shame that she is such a successful musician, since I can imagine her as the perfect awkwardly familiar boss. Just picture Swifty sidling up to you in the breakroom with a bag of microwave popcorn, all like: “What’s the gossip, girlfriend? You can tell me. I’m not like the other bosses. I’m the cool boss.” Oh, man. “Shake It Off” is such a “cool boss” song.
*- Although, let’s get real, your girl’s twenty-three. When is she old enough to know better? If you think she’s going to be shucking and jiving in her fifties, taking wholesale from other people’s cultures, you’ve got another thing coming. I think.
"It might seem strange now, but there was a time when the average social media patron did not consider Robin Williams the single most transcendent talent of several generations. That time was six days ago."
I know. A little late.
Best Song of July:
Alvvays- “Archie, Marry Me”- In July I read a lot of Grantland’s Romantic Comedy Week, which bemoaned the absence of rom-coms in today’s cinema. It wasn’t until Wesley Morris’s piece at the very end of the week that anyone had something approaching an answer. Morris posits that romantic comedies used to be sparked by the tension and inequality of the workplace, and that kindle isn’t there in a modern society where men and women are actually more equal. I would take it a step further: Traditional romantic comedies are about differences between men and women, and people are afraid that acknowledging any difference at all is bigoted. Whether or not men and womenare equal is moot; no one wants to get think-pieced about it. An entire genre is passe because people don’t feel equipped to discuss gender.
I say this because Molly Rankin of Toronto’s Alvvays offers a pretty traditional romantic sentiment in “Archie, Marry Me.” The song’s speaker is talking to a stubborn man who cites student loan debt as part of his “contempt for matrimony.” The speaker is more complex though. On one hand, she acknowledges that marriage is “signing some papers.” But it is important to her and is informed by the pressure that “They’re talking about / Us living in sin.” The song goes from a description of the man, to a description of how content they are—such a telling word—to a promise of fidelity, to a lowering of stakes, to an ultimatum. There’s a real desperation to that movement, and by the time the solo claws up the walls, we feel it too. Of course, Rankin’s dreamy roll of a voice, all the more soaring because of its thinness, is backed up by sixty years of rock and roll music—climbing guitar, flag-planting drum fill, and a wily bridge. But she’s also just a girl…standing in front of a boy…asking him to love her. And in 2014, if it’s honest, that sounds kind of revolutionary.
Best Album of July:
A Sunny Day in Glasgow- Sea When Absent- How about another film analogy? Not to poke a hole in the sixth best movie of the ’90s, but Paulie is an underdeveloped character in GoodFellas. So it helps when Henry describes him with “Paulie may have moved slow, but it was only because Paulie didn’t have to move for anybody.” A Sunny Day in Glasgow’s music isn’t necessarily slow, (“The Things They Do to Me” is a brisk 140 BPM.) but it knows where it wants to go and gets there when it feels like it. A lot of bands find a groove and stick with it though. The difference is that A Sunny Day in Glasgow can do that within the context of experimentation, and their music can sound assured and dynamic at once. My favorite is the ebullient “In Love with Useless (The Timeless Geometry in the Tradition of Passing),” but ”Crushin’” probably illustrates the band’s determinism the best. The shoegaze introduction shuffles until it can’t really be considered an introduction anymore. Then there’s a construction paper crumple of a guitar solo that flips the elegance of that first part. And then they slap an 808 coda on top of that. But those different pieces all sound as if they’re of one grand, fluid, organic piece. I’m doing a terrible job of explaining this, which is why the album deserves even more listens than I’ve already given it.
Honorable Mentions: The whole Alvvays album, Cut Copy’s steady Free Your Mind, Jenny Lewis’s Stevie Nicks channeling on The Voyager, Chance the Rapper’s beatific “Wonderful Everyday,” and Kirk Walker Graves’s awestruck 33 1/3 book on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.