In my experience of late, pop music-- one of my most beloved, irrationally and unequivocally romanticized pop-culture media-- has been in more need than ever of ruthless curating, filtering: the ratio of what captures the elusive strengths of the best pop music to what comes across as indifferent, lifeless product has come to seem ever smaller. Connections with the right people have brought me a sneak advance listen to “Refugees,” the first single by The Tears, which has in some small way renewed my faith (the pop faith is always tenuous; it requires frequent refreshing).

The group’s pedigree is impeccable from the word go: its instigators are former Suede bandmates Brett Anderson (lyrics and vocals) and Bernard Butler (songsmithing and decadently textured guitar wizardry). My veneration of Suede was (possibly too) well documented in this very blog upon their breakup in 2003. Butler, however, had left the band years before that, in 1995; his subsequent career was spotty, but he did have a very rewarding intermittent collaboration with soul singer David McAlmont (Bring it Back is a near-perfect record).

Were I to be forced at gunpoint to indicate a preference of Butler-era or post-Butler Suede (after Richard Oakes took over guitar duties), I would have to choose the former. Oakes was fine, and a generous handful of fine Suede tunes were recorded during his tenure, but Butler and Anderson were simply a match made in heaven-- the Morrissey and Marr comparisons may have been precipitate, but they turned out not to have been excessive.

If the Tears tune is any indication, then I am happy to report that the long-dormant (and, I’m assuming, estranged, as the Suede breakup was not amicable) duo have (with the aid of longtime Butler drummer Mako Sakamoto’s particularly noteworthy contributions) rediscovered their chemistry. “Refugees” is an impassioned, propulsive bit of the Spector-classicist pop Butler does so well, with Anderson’s lyrics and vocal melody displaying his always-welcome penchant for a quixotic defiance that borders on the dangerously, gloriously unhealthy (although the “Refugees” chorus contains the first explicit Bonnie and Clyde reference in his lyrical oeuvre, that us-against-the-world feel has underpinned pretty much any of Anderson’s love songs that have indulged in any sort of optimism).

The commitment of Suede-era Anderson to a radical sexual ambiguity in both form (those shockingly polymorphous album covers!) and “ever tried it that way?” lyrical content was not taken for granted by me even in what now seems to have been a relatively permissive ‘90s, and now that we are living in a new era of paranoia, superstition, and repression, it’s extra nice to see public-toilet sex and boys kissing boys in the “Refugees” video.

Said Refugees video takes place on the CCTV-monitored streets of London, which is also the setting of Michael Winterbottom’s beautiful bit of kitchen-sink poetry, Wonderland, a film I fell in love with the first time I saw it (I remember noting, in my little freelance capsule review for Willamette Week, that Winterbottom did a fine job of filling in the English kitchen-sink gap while Mike Leigh was in his uncharacteristic Topsy Turvy mode) and have continued to hold in very high esteem upon subsequent viewings. Although Winterbottom does not have the recurrent obsessions that seem to really demarcate an “auteur” (he doesn’t sensually pull, lure, browbeat you into the same fixations over and over again the way a Tarantino, a Paul or Wes Anderson, or an Almodovar is compelled and able to), he does have a consistently loose, casual-seeming style whereby he captures certain fleeting yet significant elements of his mise-en-scene.

I tracked down a copy of Winterbottom’s gold rush film, The Claim, which I had missed upon its abortive “release,” along with a revisiting of 24 Hour Party People and In This World (both with similarly low-profile releases), and I was pleasantly surprised by all of them, though I still find 24 Hour Party People his weakest film.

The Claim is not the just-another-period-deal of its trailer, but a sort of fablelike homage, by way of Thomas Hardy (I have never read the Hardy novel upon which The Claim is based, but it’s Winterbottom’s second Hardy adaptation; he had previously done a well-regarded Jude the Obscure adaptation which I have not seen, though I have, like any good fatalistic, pessimistic humanist with an appetite for the novel, read that one twice) to McCabe and Mrs. Miller: a Western that feels oddly, disconcertingly present, not burnished or mannered, full of conflicted and ultimately failed archetypes. The offbeat casting collects Wes Bentley, Sarah Polley, Nastassja Kinski, and Milla Jovovich, all of whom seem not at all at home and therefore, for the film’s purposes, quite at home. It is not a perfect film, but definitely a keeper.

In This World is a brief, simple, lovely tale of an Afghan refugee boy’s journey to the reluctant arms of England. It’s done very close to documentary-style, which lends it grace and protects it from becoming overly grandiose. The nitty-gritty, shady, petty-bartering details of attempting to travel to a better life are fascinating, and the actor, Jamal, who plays a character named Jamal (the blurring of reality and fiction in this film are indistinguishable and not really the point), creates a sympathetic character merely by his very ordinary, predictably diffident and guarded adolescent physical presence.

24 Hour Party People is a well enough made movie about a scene-- Manchester’s depressive hotbed of innovative, contemptuous pop music talent, which over a span of decades easily took punk’s inspiration to its furthest ends-- that looms large in my own personal pantheon; Manchester is the birthplace of my well-loved Smiths, after all. The film tells the story of Manchester’s Factory Records, a sprawling Warholian experiment masterminded by Tony Wilson (marvelously played by Steve Coogan). The problem is this: it is very fortunate for me and any other viewer well-versed in what the film is about (even if, like me, you have an abiding respect for Joy Division and New Order but can rarely stand the other “big” band, The Happy Mondays) that Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce are so obviously fans as well, but rather unfortunate for anyone who’s not already in on what Manchester music was. It works well as a fan letter and is very enjoyable, but it’s so insular as to be restricted to being merely that: an affectionate fan letter which will play like a clever but overlong Monty Python sketch for those who don’t know or don’t care. It cannot be called a bad film, but it’s Winterbottom’s most minor work, and rather self-consciously so, it would seem.

A recent bit of bargain-basement impulse buying landed me a pre-viewed Hollywood Video DVD of Winterbottom’s last barely-released film, Code 46, which from the looks of it is a future-dystopia corporate-state kind of deal. The Winterbottom/Robbins/Morton trio is intriguing: I like them all. The disc awaits its spin amidst an unfortunate backlog of DVDs which a full work/school schedule has prevented me from giving their due attention, but it’s near the top of the pile.

Winterbottom’s next project is an adaptation of what is widely acknowledged to be the very first self-reflexive, postmodern novel, Laurence Sterne’s 1760 bestseller The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. The drool Coogan is back as Shandy, Jeremy Northam plays a character called “Michael Winterbottom,” and Stephen Fry and Gillian Anderson will be along for the ride, all of which appeals to me immensely. If Winterbottom keeps it up, his presence on the cinematic landscape will prove not that a widely celebrated giant like the aforementioned Andersons and Tarantinos, but one of those idiosyncratic, quieter craftsmen whose body of work offers consistent, unique pleasures and surprises, films signed without flourish but with a charming, relaxed, talented hand.

Last week the Oregon Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the 3,000 same-sex marriage licenses issued last year, the ACLU will file a lawsuit (meaning my little membership fee is money well-spent), and the depression of this massive rightward shift-- again!-- continues. The big picture of the Bush era is so overwhelmingly, horrifically wrong that these little 3,000-person strong pockets of Left Coast progressivism are what we have left to give us hope, and even they are undermined and compromised. A scary specter looms in the safety haven up north: Every night on the 10-second CBC news promo that precedes The Simpsons, there is talk of a vaguely defined “liberal kickback” scandal which the conservatives up there evidently are milking for all it’s worth. Please don’t turn the blue nation red; the time may come soon when we need it!! Maybe Tom Delay will quit, which seems unlikely, as these idiot-savant, apocalyptically amoral zealots are like plane-crashing Muslims; they’ll go down before admitting they’ve made a mistake or might be wrong, and they’ll take plenty of people (a whole nation, if possible) with them. Where are the zealots with a conscience to kick our asses into some acknowledgment of nitty-gritty human lack and malaise? All is forgiven, Patty Hearst: the space-wasting spectacle of Paris Hilton makes you look like Joan of Arc.

Just to prove that I do keep desultory tabs on what we are told is “going on” in the world: I cannot bring myself to sentimentalize the Pope-- the media frenzy and bandwagon piety are merely another death-of-Reagan syndrome, if you ask me, and some mistakes are too cruel and indelible to forget simply because their authors have passed on-- and I'm utterly indifferent to Charles and Camilla, Michael Jackson, and Britney’s baby. Petty distractions, one and all.

Having defeated the math beast last quarter, my next educational obstacle is science, the second least forgiving group of disciplines. My plan was to rid myself of ten of the fifteen science credit requirements by taking two classes this quarter: Human Nutrition and Physical Geography. The geography was canceled, leaving me with the frustrating conundrum of doggedly applying myself to a class that is turning out to demand a rather intricate understanding of the chemical makeup of foods, digestive anatomy and processes, etc., an effort that does not seem adequately reflected when I tell people I am currently taking nutrition. I want to be congratulated for my small efforts, and, understandably, no-one congratulates you for nutrition. The plan for next quarter’s schedule: Strategize, strategize, strategize! No class will be selected without at least one alternate in case of contingency.

The most disturbing thing unearthed during our Power Point-driven in-class investigation of the gastrointestinal tract: The strange idea that our intestines are in our bodies without quite being of our bodies. The GI tract has an opening on either end and goes straight through without interaction with other internal body parts (nutrients are absorbed microscopically through the intestinal lining): it is a tube extending from one end of your body to another, which the rest of your body simply exists around (the inside part of the tract is called the “lumen”). I totally had a Sigourney Weaver-in-outer-space moment of queasiness: what is this entity taking up so much space inside my abdomen, and why does having a mental picture of all its complicated processes give me the willies?

For anyone reading this who has not had an opportunity to see Pedro Almodovar's masterpiece Bad Education, which it is no exaggeration to call the best film both of last year and of Almodovar's decades-spanning career, it is now available on DVD and should be number one on any movie lover's list of must-see films. It's not about anything so important as genocide (like Hotel Rwanda) or death with dignity (The Sea Inside), yet Almodovar tells his story with an obsessive passion, a loving attention to the film's every aspect that makes the other two seem incredibly timid and stale in comparison. Perhaps the filmmakers behind Hotel Rwanda and The Sea Inside were just being dutiful-- that is certainly the final impression I had of them-- whereas Almodovar somehow had more at stake, something more invested on a personal or artistic level that manifests as Bad Education. Whatever the reason, Bad Education joins Mulholland Drive, All or Nothing, and Far from Heaven on my list of postmillennial films that can always, without fail, make one's day by restoring faith in the medium through tangible proof that there are still those willing to exploit its full potential.

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