The (down)time between August 20, my last day of class (Elementary Algebra) and today, September 27, the first day of class (Intermediate Algebra) was spent frantically trying to attain as much relaxation and enjoyment as possible. Anyone who knows me knows how definitive this apparent paradox is: I must relax as much as possible- right now!! I must arrange my schedule of enjoyment so as not to waste a single leisure moment!! It goes without saying that if you can’t take a relaxed approach to your relaxation, you’re neurotic (have I ever pretended otherwise?). The meaning of relaxation and enjoyment is, to me, having the time and energy to engage, actively and enthusiastically, with the culture in general, subset “pop” in particular, and most specifically the cinema, rounded as always with a good dose of the aural and the literary.
Into the latter sphere slipped some really interesting and sometimes wonderful film books. My love of themes was, through happy coincidence, gratified by my successive devouring of Colin MacCabe’s Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy, Peter Cowie’s Revolution: The Explosion of World Cinema in the Sixties, and J. Hoberman’s The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties. The theme being, of course, that very vague cultural moment we (even those of us who weren’t there) remember as The Capital-S Sixties, specifically as it pertains to the cinema.
MacCabe’s book may be a “portrait of the artist at seventy,” but it concerns itself in large part with Godard’s period of highest fame and acclaim: 1959 to approximately 1966 or 1967, during which he made about a dozen feature films that challenged and strained that format to its utmost. It is also a literal biography, giving the Godard-fan reader a juicy perspective on just what was going on “behind the scenes” during the shooting of these films, which went out of their way to blur the imaginary but usually well-enforced line dividing behind the scenes and the scenes themselves.
MacCabe, who actually worked with Godard at various points in his career, is very adept at tracing where the auteur’s very recalcitrant, intimidatingly intelligent and flippant sensibility came from; his politics, his personal feelings towards the world, his infatuation with youth and youth (which is to say pop) culture, his ideological anarchy, his personal asceticism. I haven’t read anything yet that explains so well the extreme tension- which, it would seem to most of us, finally broke Godard the popular filmmaker, who metamorphosed into something else- between Godard’s more and more undiluted Marxist/Brechtian tendencies and the clear (perverse? Certainly not “ironic”) joy he took in the debris- so meaningful, in its way- of consumer culture.
Cowie’s book was something of an anticlimax. While certainly an informed and informative survey of the inimitably fecund cross-pollination of international cinemas in the sixties, I expected more from Cowie. His many audio commentaries and essays for Criterion Collection DVDs are of generally high quality, but the book feels disjointed and hyperbolic; lots of words and ideas thrown around, but no thrust, and nothing really seems to stick. It’s more of a catalog or encyclopedia than anything with a point of view of its own. It’s something that I was glad to absorb for informational purposes (and it did remind me of how neglected Spanish/Portuguese cinema tends to be in these foreign-film discussions), but it almost could’ve been written by anybody. The jacket makes note that Cowie is some kind of higher-up atVariety, and when I read the book, with its combination of great expressiveness and ultimate shallowness, that seemed exactly appropriate.
On those terms, Mr. J. Hoberman is virtually Cowie’s opposite. Hoberman seems to me the most insistently learned, insightful, and articulate newsprint movie critic of our time. Like Cowie, he’s written his share of essays for Criterion DVD issues (Eisenstein: The Sound Years and A Woman is a Woman, among others), and he’s also the author of several studies of cinema. The Dream Life is an uncompromisingly objective survey of what film meant in the sixties, the way our political life- what Joan Didion calls “political fictions”- is as much a part of the “dream life” of collective cultural fantasy as the more circumscribed fictions of the movies. The book has a breadth to it, and conveys the sort of obsessive reverence for the cinema; it completely reinvigorated my appetite for further perspectives on the medium.
Hoberman is more about insight than value judgment, so the reader learns from his writings as much about exactly how certain films-- Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, Blow-Up (and -Out)... and John Wayne westerns... and Clint Eastwood-as-Dirty-Harry revenge-fantasy potboilers... and B-grade vigilante exploitation films (not to be confused with the Clint Eastwood-as-Dirty-Harry revenge-fantasy potboilers)-- had an interplay with their audiences, the media, and the ever-shifting complexities of political moods than whether or not Hoberman finds them to be “good” (the distinction Hoberman is calling to attention being the one that exists between “good” by aesthetic standards and “effective,” “indicative,” or “instructive.”) What Hoberman is giving us in The Dream Life is a stab at elusive historical context with an evidently unanswerable question: As the twentieth century, with its newfound technologies and mass communications, progressed, did history provide the context for fiction, or did history play out in the context of treasured, shared, projected mythologies? Hoberman relates the Bay of Pigs and the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam and Watergate as super-productions, often bearing direct influence on ancillary super-productions of the more conventionally understood celluloid type (PT-109, for example, is discussed as the ultimate Kennedy campaign film). For all its labyrinthine, rightful equivocations, the book has an effect that clarifies even as it disorients.
-Further traversing that vast space where politics overlaps fictional narrative is Robert Altman’s Tanner ‘88, recently released to the ravenous DVD market by, yes, the Criterion people (no, this is not a contest to see how many times I can namedrop the company, and no, they’re not compensating me for free advertising... yet). Starring Altman regular Michael Murphy as presidential candidate Jack Tanner and a way pre-Sex and the City Cynthia Nixon as his college-age daughter, along with the usual sprawling Altman cast (and, “as themselves,” the entire cast and crew of the 1988 Democratic primary race).
I really enjoyed this, probably as much as I’ve enjoyed any of Altman’s features (with the possible exception of 3 Women), and it reminded me that, though I’ve never seen any of Altman’s early television work, it is where he (along with, in his generation, Sidney Lumet and John Frankheimer) got his start, and that obsession he has for very leisurely, episodic, almost anti-plot strings of events (“events” in his case being the imprinting of the qualities of one or another of the characters, or a good, rich conversation, or a particularly striking interaction) may be better served by the TV format. The many layers- the interrelationships within the media, political, and personal spheres, as well as the uneasy relationship those spheres have when they come into contact with each other, which is so constant that the lines are often blurred to disconcerting effect, the flippant mixture of fact and fiction as Jack Tanner “runs” alongside , the ways politics are different now and the ways they’re exactly the same- are riveting and gratifying. The entire thing is done on video circa 1988, with all the aesthetic limitations that implies (this ain’t digital), but the camera movements/setups are ingenious, and the eavesdropping effect Altman always goes for comes off beautifully. Altman’s instincts, which intermittently strike me as somewhat unfocused, are perfect here; he and Garry Trudeau, who wrote the thing, are shown in a brief conversation included as a DVD supplement .
Unsurprisingly, Tanner ‘88 had its original run on HBO, which subsequently made more than good on that early promise by offering discerning viewers such better-than-many-movies television programming as Sex and the City, The Sopranos, and Six Feet Under. The new Tanner ‘88 follow-up, Tanner on Tanner, was shown on the nearly underground Sundance Channel. Thanks to the miracle of DVD, however, I plan to be devouring those soon. I just hope Santa’s reading this...
-After reading, as a sort of dessert vis-à-vis The Dream Life, J. Hoberman’s excellent The Magic Hour: Film at Fin de Siecle, which collects most of his Village Voice and Artforum pieces from around 1991 to 2001, I decided to finally get to some of the fiction I’ m always raring to read but never seem to have the focus for (I do find fiction demands more focus/concentration than non) and did an Ian McEwan double bill of Enduring Love* and Amsterdam, the two novels preceding his masterful Atonement.
Enduring Love, for all its modern structure and concerns, can be characterized as an old-fashioned sort of gentle, genteel thriller. The novel’s protagonist, Joe, is stalked (for reasons more disturbed and tenacious than any kind of sexual fixation) by a young man, Jed, with whom he experiences the trauma of witnessing, after their failed rescue attempt, a man’s death. Joe’s insular world- his loving modern relationship with the perfect woman, their tasteful, gentrified apartment in a reasonably fashionable part of London, their cozy position as well-paid, noble members of the intelligentsia- is insidiously undermined by the horrifying specter of Jed, whose strange combination of religious zealotry and repressed sexuality has a clinical diagnosis: de Clerambault’s syndrome, the psychiatric diagnosis of a specific kind of paranoid-religious erotomania.
The troubling ambiguities, contradictions, and reversals of any romantic relationship have always struck me as an endlessly renewable resource for any kind of dramatic narrative; combine that with McEwan’s supple, unobstructive way of working in his very intelligent contemplations of The Big Issues (faith, the futility of human ambition, God or the lack thereof), and you have one very smart meditation dressed in the sheep’s clothing of a juicy Ann Rule pulp-crime docu-novel.
At only 200 pages, Amsterdam is so compact as to be nearly a novella, but those 200 pages drive a diamond-sharp, breathtakingly unexpected point of pitch-black satire into the mind of the reader. The story, which involves a political scandal and the wedge it drives between two English professional middle-aged men, a well-established but insecure composer and a newspaperman struggling to maintain his dignity amid the tabloidization of his milieu, is a brilliant allegory of the left’s weakness for squabbling amongst itself in its ivory tower whilst the reactionaries get away with murder on the outside. I hope that we see the Peter Greenaway film of this sometime soon (not bloody likely, but it would be just so perfect).
-I went on a George Cukor kick (enjoyed The Philadelphia Story, didn’t enjoy The Women as much as I thought I would, found A Star as Born teetering between lavish and bloated, loved without reservation Adam’s Rib and, especially, Gaslight) and discovered his excellent Judy Holliday collaborations, Born Yesterday and The Marrying Kind. Both of these confections are the best kind of tight, snappy, entirely unrealistic romantic comedies that make most modern examples of that genre seem irredeemably desperate, sluggish, and sappy. Holliday is simply one of the best film comediennes I’ve ever experienced; her . She should’ve been as famous as M. Monroe; certainly, she has more talent than Monroe had, and for my money, she has all the iconic qualities, as well. The icon-making machine simply failed her; an accident, probably, but also a mistake. Judy Holliday waits to be revived, like Douglas Sirk or The New York Dolls, by the fickle vicissitudes of critical veneration.
-Speaking of The New York Dolls, the world’s most famous Dolls-booster, Morrissey (he once wrote a book on them) has become what’s best described as the curator of his very own label. The big M’s previous curatory efforts- the Morrissey: Under the Influence release from last year and a recent NME giveaway disc, Songs to Save Your Life gave us fascinating glimpses of his long-known obsessive record-collector fandom; he rescued long-lost tracks by artists ranging from The Cats to The Slits to Diana Dors to Patti Smith to Klaus Nomi to Raymonde, along with, of course, his beloved N.Y. Dolls, while giving approving nods to new artists like The Ordinary Boys, Franz Ferdinand, and The Libertines. Now, as owner/kingpin of the Attack label (a revived reggae imprint on which he released his own You Are the Quarry album and all of its singles), he has his own eccentric “stable” of recording artists to brandish at the world.
The lost art of the single has always been an aesthetic concern for Morrissey (many of his best songs, dating back to his days with The Smiths, have been released as single only, or even as b-sides), and the first two Attack releases were singles, “Born That Way” b/w “I’m Unbearable” by longtime music-scene periphery-dweller and Morrissey pal James Maker, and “Worry Young” b/w “Sincerity” and “Conversations Getting Old” by newfound Irish band Remma.
The Maker tunes are two propulsive, guitar/drum machine attacks that manage to be both tongue-in-cheek and stridently confrontational. “Born That Way” seems to mock, or at least invert (!), the lame sexual-orientation mantra- “I can’t help being gay, I was born that way”- misguidedly used by so many naive apologists. The verses say pointedly offensive things like, “Myth and legend bore me stiff/I pushed Mother Theresa off a cliff;” also “A sonnet from a sociopath/I annihilated Sylvia Plath/I don’t care, I was born that way,” while the chorus lets us know that “that way” of being born is as “someone to be got rid of.” “I’m Unbearable” makes a good b-side; it’s a similar but slighter anti-apology anthem.
The Remma single is much more conventional; all of the songs are melodramatically pretty, especially the violin touches, but not as memorable as I’d hoped for. The demo version of “Worry Young” included on Songs to Save Your Life was actually better than the more produced version included on the single. What the group has ended up with are three songs of empathy and overflowing emotion that are both pretty and fairly standard. Hopefully, upcoming releases will reveal something more idiosyncratic or unique. Otherwise, it’s easy to see Remma getting lost in the shuffle.
Of the full-length Attack releases, I’m not prepared to comment on Morrissey Presents: Pre-Crash Condition - The New York Dolls or Damien Dempsey’s Seize the Day, not having had an opportunity to hear them as of the time I write this. I did, however, make a point of rushing out to buy Nancy Sinatra’s self-titled album. Ms. Sinatra is one of Morrissey’s Hollywood neighbors, and the two are apparently fast friends; she’s described him as her “mentor.” My friend and fellow Nancy follower, Jamie S. Rich, caught what may be the world’s only truly sexy grandma at this year’s Bumbershoot, where she performed songs off the album, including a creepy composition by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, “Momma’s Boy,” and a cover of Morrissey’s perfect “Let Me Kiss You,” which earlier this month was released as a single simultaneously with Morrissey’s version (both have become UK chart hits, with Morrissey’s version faring significantly better as a bona fide top-10 invader).
Both of those songs are included on the album; “Let Me Kiss You” has a slowed-down, echoing vibe that stands with the best of Nancy’s Lee Hazelwood collaborations while creating a languorous melancholy to contrast with the self-deprecating wryness of Morrissey’s rendition. That other very English musical genius, Jarvis Cocker, contributed two songs- “Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time” and “Baby’s Coming Back to Me”- that are identifiable as Cocker creations by their lyrics and melodies but rendered indelible by Sinatra’s never-smokier vocals. “Burnin’ Down the Spark,” composed by Texan band Calexico, has vaguely Latin trumpets weeping in the margins and the sort of big, sweeping, twangy feel that Sinatra’s voice has been joined with successfully many times before. It’s a lost-love epic that makes for a very strong album-opener; unfortunately, it’s followed by Jon Spencer’s “Ain’t No Easy Way,” which unfortunately contains far too much of Spencer’s Lux-Interior-taking-himself-way-too-seriously attitudinizing to be anything but skippable. The album’s remaining notable keeper is the rocker “Baby Please Don’t Go,” which is a simple, strong, catchy number a la the early Pretenders. I don’t think it would be going too far to say that Nancy Sinatra could very well be the new Sandie Shaw.
-And speaking of the fickle vicissitudes of critical veneration, I am floored by the way The Thrills, 2003’s big-selling critical darlings, have somehow gone from flavor of the month to hot potato with their fine new album, Let’s Bottle Bohemia. The Q reviewer seems to have had a surplus of nasty, irrelevant little comments, which he randomly decided to unload on this effort, and Rolling Stone (granted, Rolling Stone’s opinion on music counts for little; the hackneyed quality of most of their reviews, save those written by Rob Sheffield, is exemplary of the worst kind of fake, smug, self-satisfied knowingness that’s long infested the overcrowded music press here and abroad).
Let’s Bottle Bohemia is straightforward, also lovely, textured but not overly precious, melancholy, with solid and articulate lyrical and melodic phrasing. There’s more of a doubtful, sad country-rock vibe than the sunnier, more Beach Boys-oriented harmonies of their debut, So Much for the City, but it’s still proudly energetic pop. This group cares about being catchy and dynamic, and there are no “No Depression” affectations here; The Thrills’ affectations are much more well-chosen.
The standout tracks are the party-stopper “Saturday Night,” the post-decadence ballad of loneliness “Not For All the Love in the World,” the Citizen Kane-referencing “I Found My Rosebud,” and my personal favorite, “The Curse of Comfort,” which revisits a recurrent Thrills theme of “alternative” coolness and scenester/hipsterism as cracked shelters from a loveless world and contains, between the verses, one of the album’s very few Beach Boys-style musical offerings, which happens to be more .
Am I biased when it comes to The Thrills? Yes. Yes, I am. Anyone who’s read my previous entries on The Thrills knows that I think the band’s singer/songwriter-in-residence, Conor Deasy, has the sexiest presence and voice in contemporary pop music (I liked him better without the current crop of facial hair, I should note). His keening, achy, impassioned, desolate-country-boy vocalizing and his gently masculine Irish speaking voice makes my heart flutter; he strikes me as a Pop Idol of the classic, classy variety.
*I had the opportunity to review the upcoming film of Enduring Love, which was inexplicably produced by McEwan himself but is, in most respects, a failure. I’ve pasted below the pre-copy-edit version of the brief review I wrote for Just Out. Note that because of space limitations and Just Out’s editorial requirements, my focus had to be on the film’s very flawed misconstruction of the book’s sexual (or not) undercurrents rather than on its much less depressing performances and visuals.
Ian McEwan’s subtle, unnerving 1997 novel is given the big-screen treatment by director Roger Michell and screenwriter Joe Penhall, and the results are almost a textbook example of the pitfalls of adapting a novel for the cinema.
In McEwan’s version, a male writer and his female professor fiancee live a serene life in upscale London before a traumatic event brings a male stalker into the writer’s life. The couple is subjected to escalating mental, emotional and physical menace as the young man develops a mysterious, fanatical, relentless, almost entirely asexual attachment to the writer. Michell and Penhall have made many small and some noticeably not-so-small excisions and alterations; they’ve come up with an aesthetically inventive film containing the characters and story of a conventional thriller, robbing us of McEwan’s very precise yet emotionally complex rendering of the fraught scenario.
Daniel Craig and the ever-riveting Samantha Morton (whose singularly corporeal screen presence makes the film almost worth seeing) play Joe and Claire, the couple; Rhys Ifans is Jed, the stalker. In the novel, Jed’s bizarre pursuit of a same-sex stranger has its cause not in anything so everyday and benign as homosexuality, but in quasi-religious mania, loneliness, and, it’s revealed, a rare but diagnosable mental illness. Vito Russo, the late Celluloid Closet watchdog, would have had a fit over Michell and Penhall’s regressive revision; McEwan took pains in his novel to make a clear distinction between functional gay men and this specific, sexually stunted man, but the filmmakers have (homo)sexualized Jed while leaving him without a shred of the humanity and empathy offered to, say, Matt Damon’s murderous but human queer in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Michell and Penhall’s Jed is the laughably outdated Deranged Homo Killer, with an openmouthed kiss at knifepoint between him and Joe (entirely the filmmakers’ lunkheaded invention) depicted, ridiculously, as the ultimate horror.
Frankly, Joe and Claire are also shortchanged as characters, which brings us to the film’s underlying, fatal problem: Michell has some arresting visual ideas and a cast ranging from skilled to brilliant, but the characters, particularly Jed, have been whittled into standard, dull thriller clichés. We’re left to wonder which is worse: Active, obviously bigoted homophobia that singles out a queer character, or Enduring Love’s kind, which is merely symptomatic of the ultimately lazy, one-dimensional thinking behind the work as a whole?
Subscribe to Posts [Atom]