Interlude: A trenchant comment on patriotism from Grace Paley's short story (and the collection of the same name), "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute:"
She read aloud from the Times about the bombed, burned lepers' colonies in North Vietnam. Her father said, Please, Alexandra, today, no propaganda. Why do you constantly pick on the United States? He remembered the first time he'd seen the American flag on wild Ellis Island. Under its protection and working like a horse, he'd read Dickens, gone to medical school, and shot like a surface-to-air missile into the middle class.
Then he said, But they shouldn't put a flag in the middle of the chocolate pudding. It's ridiculous.
It's Memorial Day, said the nurse's aide, removing his tray.
2005 was an unfortunately scattered and harried year for me, to the point that I paid appallingly intermittent attention to my beloved popular culture. I caught a few wonderful snatches of buzz-worthiness (see below), but I simply haven’t the frame of reference for proper “best-ofs.” I have yet to see Walk the Line or King Kong, for instance, and my pre-viewed copy of 3-Iron, which I got on the cheap from Hollywood Video, remains unwatched. Which brings me to my self-effacing buck-passing: My good friend Jamie S. Rich, he of Confessions of a Pop Fan, chose 3-Iron as his favorite film of the year, tying with Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046. I am going to refer (note the distinction from “defer”) any curious readers to his lists, here for film and here for music. I’d have most of the films in a different order, and Mr. Rich is way more on top of new music than I am (I swear I’ve not heard of half of the artists he’s picked), but they’re the closest thing I feel comfortable providing to a year-end wrap-up. I do, of course, agree that The Tears were the biggest thing in music this year.
Another musical entry from 2005 that caught my devout interest was Franz Ferdinand’s second album, You Could Have it So Much Better. In some ways more “raw” and cohesive than the first record, I was uncertain about it at first. As I explored the album, however, each song eventually became a “favorite” in its turn—almost always the sign of a truly great record, but we’ll wait and see about that. For now, I’ll just happily acknowledge my amazement that these nice young Scottish boys with the archest, snappiest dress sense since Jarvis Cocker can find so many different and engaging new patterns in which to shuffle their bouncy, catchy, LOUD deck.
The songs derive much of their long-lived welcome from oh-so-slight oddities in structure that may be distracting at first, but leave a little bit in reserve so that it can be discovered on subsequent listens. The band must have more good ideas than they know what to do with, because almost every song here has an odd tempo switch or sudden alteration of tone out of which rises a whole new catchy vocal melody or riff or other extra little something that pushes the song over the top. “I’m Your Villain” doesn’t sound like all that much at first, maybe, but by the time you get to the massive release of dueling-guitar propulsion at the song’s “see ya late-ah” kiss-off climax (there’s really no other word for this tune’s syncopated second-wind race to the finish line), it’s become the album’s strongest rocker. The lyrics, which on paper might be a little too far into vague Strokes territory, come across on singer Alex Kapranos’s delivery (like a snottier Bryan Ferry); in his delivery, they gel as tongue-in-cheek, funny, sad little stories about drugs, sex, and decadence (and, oh yes, a little bit of well-rationed tenderness). Even their unexpected new interest in ballads, though a tad too nakedly Beatles-esque to sound as inimitable as their loud/fast numbers, pays off: “Eleanor Put Your Boots On” is that rare love song that revels at the bird (in this case that Eleanor girl from Brooklyn arty-pop band The Fiery Furnaces) being set free rather than a desire to cage; and speaking of Bryan Ferry, “Let’s Fade Together,” with its Berlin Wall references intermingled with romantic resignation, belongs in spirit alongside David Bowie's “Heroes” and Ferry’s (with Roxy Music) “Song for Europe”—a desire for rest, letting go, some kind of clean slate—that bespeaks the worldly-wise world-weariness of an entire continent. Both songs, it should be noted, have truly lovely piano bits that add a new dimension of elegance to the band’s arsenal.
Occupying most of my musically related thoughts at this point, however, is the upcoming Morrissey album, Ringleader of the Tormentors. Coming on the heels of the very strong You Are the Quarry, it seems Ringleader is bound to be at least something of a continuation of Morrissey’s well-earned renaissance. The mouth-watering evidence as of right now: It is produced by the legendary Tony Visconti (most famed for producing majestically superb T. Rex, David Bowie, and Sparks albums in the 70s) and was recorded in Rome. It features Ennio Morricone orchestration and a children’s choir. It has lyrics referencing Pasolini and (Luchino, not Tony) Visconti (did Moz recognize erstwhile Smiths cover star Terence Stamp of The Collector in Pasolini’s Teorema?). I’m not afraid to say that I expect it to be the very best album of 2006; watch this space for all of my ongoing, dangerously obsessive effusions.
Woody Allen did not have the wisdom of Morrissey, the sense to hang it up for a while and recuperate after a failure: After the singer’s less-than-perfect 1997 Maladjusted album, he didn’t record again for another seven years, i.e., until he had something worth recording. Allen has insisted on a film a year, and I don’t think any of us would have been too much worse off had he taken a break between, say, Curse of the Jade Scorpion and last year’s much more bearable Melinda and Melinda. Most of the things in between are a blur; if only he hadn’t made films like Husbands and Wives and The Purple Rose of Cairo, they would’ve been on a higher level of okay, but in the context of his great work, they were microscopic even when they weren’t forced and desultory.
Every sign points to the coming-soon Match Point as the return of the Woody Allen who has something invested in the work. Is Match Point to be Woody Allen’s You Are the Quarry?. In both cases, the change of scene was unlikely but did the artist good: Who ever pictured Morrissey in Los Angeles (of course, the faded glamour of vintage Hollywood turned out not be such an odd association after all). Who ever, ever pictured Woody Allen anywhere other than Manhattan? Yet there he’s been in London, shooting two pictures, with a third to be shot in Spain this year. I wish there was more overlap between the Allen fan base and the Morrissey one (it’s a generational thing, I’m sure; old people generally don’t demonstrate a belief in sensibilities transcending “noisiness” boundaries or media with different “prestige” levels, and young people generally think Woody Allen is a strange and rather dirty old man). But Morrissey’s humorous side is grossly underappreciated, as is Allen’s intellectually-tempered, rueful, Bergmanesque emotional I.Q. The two great artists have more in common than the public’s (mis)perceptions of them will allow.
Among my other films to make a big deal out of (Michael Haneke’s Caché and Mary Harron’s The Notorious Bettie Page leading the pack), the most tantalizingly mysterious is David Lynch’s Inland Empire. The IMDB description: “Set in the inland valley outside of Los Angeles, David Lynch's new film is a mystery about a woman in trouble.” After what he was able to do with a certain kind of Southern-California mythology in the sublime Mulholland Drive, I have high hopes for the film. Lynch always walks a tightrope, but the risks he took with Mulholland Drive paid off in spades; it’s a towering masterpiece, certainly one of my favorite films of the new millennium. Just the words “inland empire,” used as they are to give a name/identity to what has appeared to my visiting eyes to be a vast and unknowable exurban wasteland, are conceptually and geographically evocative in a way that makes me excited to see what Lynch’s imagination will make of them.
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