Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Suffocatingly Good: Of Dark Knights and Dancin' Fools

1. Two images dominate the first season of Angel: The first, from the pre-credits scene of the pilot (later to be caught as the final image in the show's credits) shows our titular hero-- a vampire with a soul who fights for good in order to atone for past sins--staking two vampires and stalking off into the night, his long leather duster swirling behind him. Framed by a dirty, shadow-strewn alley, Angel seems the embodiment of Raymond Chandler's noir detective: "down these streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is not himself tarnished nor afraid....He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry that you ever saw him."

The second, quite different image is distinctively unproud, as Angel (David Boreanaz) imagines himself dancing at a friend's party. Cut to Boreanaz doing...well, the dorkiest dance ever, full of arhythmic arm movements, regrettable hip sways, and a positively Marmaduke-like tongue flapping through his lips. Flashing back to reality, Angel says, completely deadpan, "I don't dance."

Somewhere between those two images-- the first full of epic darkness and danger, the second oozing humorous satire-- lies the tone of this Buffy spinoff, whose complete run has just been released this Halloween week in one monstrously large DVD box/cube. Initially far more "stand-alone" in its episodic structure than Buffy (which would quickly change in the coming years) there's clearly a lot of feeling around going on in its initial year, as co-creators Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt and their cast try to figure out to dance to the beat of this new song they're playing, desperate to look more like the cool avenger than the dancing fool. It takes about half-a-season, but they eventually find their rhythm, and the end result is brilliant television, and arguably the most underrated thing Joss Whedon ever did.

2. For all of its critical success and cult status, Angel has often been treated like that dorky dancer at the party-- fans smile politely, eke out a wan compliment or two on its behalf, and quickly try to find the cool kids at the TV party (Grey's Anatomy, is that you?). Its network, the late-but-not-lamented WB, never quite knew what to do with the show, changing its airtime several times and eventually canceling the program despite an uptick in ratings. Even fans of Buffy have sometimes treated Angel like the stepkid, the middle child, the Dawn of the Whedonverse (Buffy has the older sister cool cache, while Firefly gets to play the hip martyr). This is a shame, because Angel always offered as much bang for the buck as Buffy (and, in seasons two and three, surpasses its parent in quality).

Count me as one of those who overlooked its salty goodness at first glance. I don't know what it is with me and Joss Whedon shows-- I always seem to come to the party late. I didn't start watching Buffy until its fourth season, and kicked myself for not watching sooner (which is why, like any good cinephile, I bow to the great goodness of DVDs). You'd think I'd have learned my lesson, but no-- I really didn't start watching Angel until its fourth season (Maybe it's fate).

On first glimpse, it was a hard show for me to get a grip on. Watching in Fall 2000 with a group of friends at weekly Buffy viewing parties (during the Slayer's fifth season), Angel (which initially followed Buffy in the WB's Tuesday night lineup) seemed less focused, too superheroic-- and who was that bitchy brunette, and that wimpy British guy? Why was that blonde vampire floating above his bed? And he has a what-- a curse? Pah! I hadn't yet caught up with Buffy's high school years, where Angel made his debut, so character and show were both something of a puzzle to me-- brooding, mopey, somewhat drab. I didn't get it.

3. After reaching a perfect closure to its first, high-school based half, Buffy saw the departure of three seemingly minor figures at the end of season three-- Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), the sarcastic school princess, forced to work as a secretary after her parents were indicted on tax fraud; Wesley (Alexis Denisof), the oafish Watcher who generally caused as much trouble as he prevented; and Angel, Buffy's paramour/arch enemy. All three wind up in LA, where Angel opens a supernatural detective agency and, aided by Cordelia, Wesley, and the mysterious, vision-prone Doyle (Glenn Quinn), fights the demons and lawyers (but I repeat myself) Raymond Chandler never could have dreamed of.

Yes, it sounds goofy. So does Buffy, if you boil it down to a couple of sentences. So doesThe Sopranos. And The Simpsons. And The Prisoner. And The West Wing. And Kid Nation (OK, that last one I'll give you).

It's a truth universally acknowledged that viewers in search of a good TV date would be wise to take plot summaries with a grain of salt. Nearly any show worth watching is going to sound odd in a 100-word-or-less verbal description: a gangster who sees a shrink? A teenager who solves crimes? A drama about public policy? A misanthropic spy kidnapped and sent to a Rousseau-like "Village"? Hearing all this, one's likely to wind up like Bill Cosby's Moses, listening to God describing plans for an ark and responding, "Riiiight."

That's especially true of Joss Whedon's work. Trying to summarize Buffy in conversation makes you sound like a combination mental patient and 12-year-old: "She's a cheerleader, see, but she's also a 'Chosen One,' who fights vampires and stuff, and she has this 'Watcher' father figure guy who's the school librarian, and her friend's a witch, but the other friend..." Good luck even getting to the whole vampire-with-a-soul lover thing before your companion walks away rolling her eyes.

That's because TV, for all its ability to utilize novelistic structures in terms of serialization, depth of character and density of social and aesthetic detail, is not really a literary medium. It's not really about the what, but the how (or, to be more precise, how we get to the what through the how), and Whedon's a master of the how. Buffy and Angel both bristle with color, wit and an adventurous spirit, and a desire to demolish generic boundaries.

It's not about plot, in other words, it's about execution, and in the hands of Whedon and Greenwalt, two of TV's best writers, Angel blossoms in that first season, as Boreanez, Charisma Carpenter, Glenn Quinn and Alexis Denisof all flesh out potentially hazardous stereotypes (Carpenter, in particular, is a comic delight) and help to tell tales of tremendous adventure, horror, humor and grace.

4. Angel is the tale of a vampire, so it made sense that it might need to shed some of its previous show's skin, inhabit a new creative body. It was a spin-off of a Whedon creation, but he quickly turned over the day-to-day production and "showrunning" to David Greenwalt, and it was clear by the end of its first year that Angel would be as much a product of Greenwalt's sensibility as Whedon's. In fact, most of the best episodes of the show were not written or directed by Whedon (the exception being the lovely Red Shoes homage, "Waiting In The Wings"), but by Greenwalt or Tim Minear, who came to the show from The X-Files. Greenwalt's sensibility is no less funny or adventurous than Whedon's, but it's a bit more rueful, less Whedon's occasionally adolescent and ever-so-slightly melodramatic approach than something more wryly middle-aged and comedic (or to put it another way-- Whedon once said his favorite Buffyverse character was Willow, while Greenwalt admitted to a great fondness for Cordelia. In those two choices lies a sense of their aesthetic differences).

Letting Greenwalt have his head on the show was a wonderful idea-- it made the pair the Lennon and McCartney of genre television, each's strenths balancing out the other's weaknesses, and Angel quickly took shape as one of TV's best hours, both epic and intimate in scale. If Buffy was a metaphor for high school and adolescence, Whedon and Greenwalt made it clear that Angel would be about post-collegiate life, when you know more but are still confused and liable to do something really stupid. Concurrent with that risk, they also described Angel's vampirism as a metaphor for addiction, and one of the recurring motifs of the show was the necessity of community to keep one balanced and sane.

For all the value of the first season, it's the second season where things take off (this was true of Buffy, too). The primary leads have all gotten a good grip on their characters and their chemistry, and this allows Whedon to expand the cast, making the tough, funny African-American demon hunter Gunn (August Richards) a regular, while also making the show much darker than in its first, more screwball year. The key to this is Wolfram & Hart, the law firm that acts as Angel's primary nemesis. Greenwalt had previously co-created the cult classic Profit, an audacious, short-lived Fox show centered around a corporate anti-hero played by Adrian Pasdar. Wolfram & Hart was not quite as radical an idea as the company in Profit, simply because they're clearly the villains, rather than our uneasy protagonists, but it's certainly an extension of the sleek, metallic, tongue-in-cheek yuppie satire Greenwalt was playing with on that show (he and Whedon had even discussed bringing Pasdar on as Jim Profit-- he'd be revealed as a "Senior Partner" in the firm-- but could never figure out how to make it work).

This gave Angel an explicit, neo-noir link to those wealthy, connected villains of Chandler or Chinatown, and it also gave us delightfully venal characters like lawyers Lindsay (Christian Kane) and Lilah (Stephanie Romanov), who become rather lovable in spite of themselves. It was also a narrative choice that again reflected the growing maturity of Angel in comparison to Buffy: by making the villain a permanent, virtually unbeatable one-- the dark joke at the center of the program is that all of Angel's work on behalf of the helpless just creates more business for W&H--the viewer was reminded that this show wouldn't be about weekly battles or final victories, but the values of attrition. It would be less about what happened than why, and what it meant to keep moving forward against the odds. By the time the whole gang went to the mythical land of Pylea for a Wizard of Oz-style, four-episode finale (where they picked up another new regular cast member, Amy Acker's fabulous Fred), it was clear the show was in a groove. "You know where I belong?," karaoke demon Lorne asks Angel in the finale. "L.A. You know why? Nobody belongs there. It's the perfect place for guys like us."

5. Season Three of Angel ran contemporaneously with Season Six of its then-estranged sister show Buffy (network politics and Hollywood egos had resulted in a channel shift for the latter, and a "ban" on the cross-over episodes that had fueled both shows' previous two seasons). A quick glance at the tone of both shows suggests it must have been a bummer of a year at their parent company, Mutant Enemy: both are extraordinarily bleak, plunging their characters into dark places and difficult emotional situations that reshape nearly everything viewers had come to expect from each program. I should quickly add that both shows are also superb-- Buffy, in particular, is so powerful, and closes its sixth season with such emotional and thematic finality, that it's hard to view its seventh and final year as anything but a pandering anti-climax (but that's a review for a different time). Angel, on the other hand, was just warming up.

Season Three is a crucial one for Angel, acting as a bridge between the low-key, stand-alone episodes of Seasons One and Two and the intense darkness (and epic narrative) of Season Four. Season Two laid the groundwork for such a shift, by bringing back Angel's old paramour Darla and moving evil law firm Wolfram & Hart to center stage. But it is in Season Three when this new narrative style takes full effect, resulting in what is arguably Angel's best year. Whedon and Greenwalt keep a perfect balance between the intimately personal and the excessively epic, reconfiguring several character relationships, introducing crucial new heroes and villains, and throwing the reader into a storyline of love, family, violence and betrayal worthy of Tony Soprano.

Of course, Tony Soprano never had to encounter a giant demon named Skip; a ballerina under the spell of an eternal dance; a vampire hunter named Holtz; sex-crazed, karaoke-blessing sirens; or a talking plastic hamburger that holds the secrets of a crucial prophecy. All of these elements create a space where the sublime and the ridiculous mingle promiscuously, and to great effect (if reductive histrionics and easy answers are what you're after, there's always Six Feet Under).

All of the writers and directors are at the top of their games here and special mention should also be made of composer Robert Kral's mournful scores (one of the Whedon show's secret weapons has always been its musical talent). By the time the season has ended, our heroes are scattered and physically/emotionally isolated from one another. This state of affairs would act as a metaphor for the creative ups and downs of the fourth season, at once Angel's most ambitious and most difficult.

6. The gossip first (since it's a recurring motif in the fourth season, anyway): rumor has it that Charisma Carpenter scuttled the writers' plans for her character's central role in the fourth season by getting pregant over the summer. By the time the fifth season started, Carpenter-- of central importance to Angel's, and indeed Buffy's, balance of the adventurous and the satiric-- would no longer be on the show.

No one knows for sure what kinds of emotions, pique, or pragmatism were involved in that decision, and all involved have mostly been too professional to comment. Let's just say the show was never as good without her, and at the same time, the flaws of the fourth season make you wonder what the writers' original plans were-- there are so many flashes of brilliance alternating with so many moments of "huh?" that it's a hard season to get a bead on. But the pregnancy was now there, the writers had to work with it, and it become a fascinating symbol of their efforts to birth a new show out of what Whedon has called the fourth year's "24-like" structure.

If season one is jazz (riffing and expanding on the characters and themes of Buffy), season two dark pop and season three a symphony of recurring motifs, then season four of Angel is clearly operatic. Everything is larger than life, overblown, melodramatic, aching and beautiful, and so interconnected that a new viewer would be completely and utterly lost. It really is speaking in its own hermetic language, right down to having new episodes pick up at literally the second where the previous one left off (the whole 22-episode season takes place in about a week or two of story time). Without spoiling the various plotlines, let's just say the narrative was also operatic in form, involving fratricide, matricide and patricide; lover's quandrangles and emotional betrayals; rises and falls of epic proportions; incest (well, kind of); deus ex machinas and magical curses; and violence, violence, violence, all culminating in a final twist that might have been the most brilliant inspiration the show ever had. It closed off one era of the program while offering a great starting point for a new one. It's a shame that all involved fumbled the ball.

7. Scan any number of websites devoted to Joss Whedon, or reviews in magazines and newspapers, and the general consensus seems to be that the fifth season of Angel is easily its finest. Many reasons are cited-- the addition of Spike, Angel's enemy/rival from Buffy; the greater participation by Whedon, by Fall 2003 free of his Buffy/Firefly/Fray duties; or the more episodic structure and greater humor, especially when compared to the operatic intensity of Season Four. I also suspect the praise for Five is enhanced by its martyr status, since the program was suddenly and surprisingly canceled by the WB to make way for a Dark Shadows remake (which, ironically, never aired, although the Frog was kind enough to bless us with The Mountain and One Tree Hill before it folded into the UPN to create the misbegotten CW, all of which suggests Mutant Enemy was lucky to escape the network's clutches when it did).

I don't share in this general opinion-- in fact, I think this is easily Angel's weakest season, even when compared to the hit-and-miss of Season Four. That season's finale set up this final year's narrative conceit-- that, after four years of battling evil law firm Wolfram and Hart, our ragtag heroes would take it over, hoping to battle demonic evil from within the beast's belly. It's a brilliant idea, and an example of the program's ability to constantly challenge itself. Unfortunately, the execution is less interesting than the concept. This season lacks the narrative and tonal complexity of the previous four seasons; it is slow to start, and takes about half the year to figure out how to integrate the heroes into their new environment. Similarly out of place is Spike-- it takes nothing away from James Marsters' considerable talent to suggest he's never really fit into the more noirish and brooding spaces of Angel: despite his vampirism, he's a figure of comedy, not tragedy, and while he has some great moments here (his chemistry with David Boreanaz has always been strong), much of the time he just takes up space, like a fanboy token. In taking up that space, he minimizes screen time for the series regulars the show's worked so hard to develop in previous years: particularly slighted in the first half of the year is Alexis Denisof's Wesley, arguably the most complex and important character in the Angel universe. The show also suffers grievously from the loss of two stalwarts: Charisma Carpenter and David Greenwalt, who left after the third season (he comes back to direct one episode, and it's one of the season's best), to say nothing of Tim Minear, who left during Season Four. Without the biting wit of Cordelia and wry maturity of Greenwalt's writing and direction, the show's more adolescently melodramatic tendencies tend to dominate (particularly disappointing in this regard is "A Hole in the World," whose narrative twist is crucial and yet somehow underwhelming). The WB's business moves don't help: it's clear the writers expected a sixth season, and were forced to rush certan plot points to resolve them by the end of the year.

And yet, there are still any number of reasons to watch. One thing to keep in mind is that "weak" is a relative term, and the standard set by Years 1-4 is quite high. If Season Five lacks the coherence of Three, the rich emotional drive of Two or the scope and ambition of Four, it's still full of good moments. "Smile Time" alone is worth the price of the box, and an example of how good the show can be when firing on all cylinders. "The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinquo," writer Jeffrey Bell's tribute to Mexican wrestling (don't ask, just watch) pops like "Band Candy" on Buffy. When David Greenwalt shows up to direct the fabulous inside joke, "The Girl In Question," he offers a smart and stylish resolution to the Buffy/Angel/Spike triangle that's positively Felliniesque. And the return of Cordelia for one ep is not only the season's high point, but might just be among the five best Angel episodes ever. Gunn's journey over the course of the year, while a bit heavy-handed, is moving, and once Denisof is given something to play in the second half of the year, he reminds us of how strange, funny, and crucial Wesley is. Mercedes McNabb is always a delight as ditzy vampire Harmony, a woman who never saw a herd she wouldn't join. Throw in a moving final episode, and this season offers plenty to be proud of, while also cleaning up many of the mistakes of the ludicrous final season of Buffy. It's more than enough to make up for Valley Girl lawyer Eve, a pale shadow of the program's previous femme fatale, Lilah; the murkiness of plot points involving evil lawyer Lindsay and the menacing Senior Partners; the misguided war pastiche "Why We Fight"; and the bewildering use of Lorne, a fabulous character whose journey really ended in the middle of Season Four.

It doesn't give anything away to say that the show ends where it started: in an alley. Alleys are a recurring motif in Whedon's work, and I'm not sure why, beyond their obvious noir resonances. They are a dead end, and yet they nearly always have a regenerative quality in Whedon's work (babies are born, vampires created, evil thwarted). Whedon is a musical comedy geek, and I am reminded of scenes from countless musicals, like The Band Wagon, where stars meet in the alley backstage, to offer up tentative declarations of love, good luck and praise or criticism (this link is most explicit in Season Three, when a baby is born in a rainy alley outside a destroyed karaoke club). The show must go on, even when trapped in a dead end. That makes it the perfect visual metaphor for this conflicted season. Even when facing impossible odds--from fictional villains to real-life network heads--Angel, show and character, find reasons to fight and entertain their audiences.

The result is perhaps best summed up by Raymond Chandler, if we imagine him speaking of television shows: "If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in."

Bones Watch (10/30): Disguises

The image above is something of a test: you either laugh at it, or you don't. I think it's a pretty funny image in and of itself, but also suspect the humor derives, in large part, from your knowledge of the show, and what it means to see Bones dressed as Wonder Woman, or Zack sporting an udder. By now, Bones relies on our familiarity with the show's characters as much as our interest in the increasingly tenuous mystery plots. I think that's good-- it's what distinguishes the program from more antiseptic offerings like CSI, the Hard Rock Cafe franchise of television drama-- but as this episode also proves, it means when the portrayals are a little off, it sticks out like the tape on David Boreanaz's glasses.

I missed last week's episode (and when I heard it guest starred John Francis Daley, of Freaks and Geeks fame, I kicked myself), but Bones' quirky mixture of arc and standalone structures means I didn't feel like I missed too much continuity-- Bones and Booth are still bickering, Angela and Hodgins are still searching for her surprise husband, Zack is still intermittently grappling with his Iraq experience, and Camille remains the show's most frustratingly underused character (nice Catwoman costume, though). The show is still full of witty moments, many of them involving Booth's mixture of confident tough guy and adolescent geek (loved, in the pre-credits sequence, how he ran through the hay maze walls like a linebacker, then gave a little boy shrug-and-grin to Bones). The revelation of Booth's clown phobia was cute, and nice tie back to last season's ice-cream truck shootout. Interesting, too, to learn that Bones (like her cinematic doppelganger Indiana Jones) is afraid of snakes. Fear was a common thread to this week's subplots: childhood fears surrounding Halloween, Angela and Hodgins fear of the "boogeyman" missing husband that will continue to haunt them, Zack's fear of making "intuitive leaps" (kudos to Eric Millegan for making his character's tightly-wound stuffiness poignant) and lingering PTSD about his time in Iraq, and Camille's fears of powerlessness, expressed through the defense of her Catwoman costume as "one of the most powerful superheroes." While the mysteries continue to be mostly McGuffins, this one was a step up from the convoluted "pony play" of two weeks ago, and served its main function of kicking the character relationships into high gear.

Here's my fear: that some of these character traits could become tics, rote weekly restagings of typology rather than the rich interaction and development we saw in the first two years. And a bigger fear: what's up with the increasing sadism of our heroes? We know that Bones has a secret gun fetish, and Booth is a haunted, occasionally violent soul (I mean, it's a David Boreanaz character, after all), but last night's ep showed a certain glee (especially in the interrogation scenes) that seemed out of place. I hope it's an aberration, the writers trying on a different costume in the spirit of a ghoulish holiday. I'd hate to see Bones become the later, tiredly reactionary seasons of NYPD Blue (David Boreanaz as Dennis Franz? Now, that's scary). Far better to embrace the spirit of the last scene-- a delightful image of the normally staid Bones twirling like Wonder Woman in her costume--and its belief in the power of costumes to reveal dreams and desires, rather than sadistic nightmares.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Memory as Improvisation: Louis Malle

For the first time in years, I didn't see a lot of movies this past summer (and when the blockbusters offered are along the lines of the disappointing Die Hard 4, I don't feel I missed much), but one of my most profound and sensual viewing experiences came in July, when I watched Murmur of the Heart, while making my way through Criterion's recent Louis Malle box. I knew right away, when the jazz came up on the soundtrack and the kids spoke of Charlie Parker, that the film would speak to me, but I didn't expect its voice to be so witty, at once offhand and deeply felt. So much could've gone wrong in this film, whose plot summary suggests a story that wouldn't be unfamiliar to John Landis or Judd Apatow. But while I admire Apatow's work, it looks positively ham-handed and moralistic compared to the fleetness of Malle's, how effortlessly he moves from bourgeoisie satire to ambiguous drama, often within a single scene (note the unresolved tensions in the embrace between mother and son at the sanitarium, how we're not sure if we're supposed to be shocked, moved, amused or aroused), or how he manages to offer screwball anarchy (the brothers are delightful) against a dense visual backdrop of French domesticity, each one enhancing the strength of the other, instead of canceling it out. The key, I think, is how Malle works without judgment, shaving the 'morality' off the story and thereby opening the narrative to a far wider range of emotional and ethical responses; like his contemporary Francois Truffaut (for whom he was often mistaken), he seems to have absorbed Renoir's great remark about Rules of the Game: "Everyone has their reasons," and this empathy made his work comic in the best sense.

While an acclaimed and successful director, you don't hear Louis Malle discussed nearly as much these days as Godard, Truffaut, Resnais, or Varda, at least in academic circles. Perhaps his work appeared too craftsmanlike, too bourgeois, too eclectic to really fit into a prescribed aesthetic or ideological program (thus limiting the portability of his "meanings," limiting his usefulness as a rhetorical weapon or tool). Perhaps it's because he married a Hollywood star, and even appeared on her TV sitcom. This state of affairs might be changing with the recent Criterion releases of films like Elevator to the Gallows, Murmur, Au Revoir, Les Enfants, Lacombe, Lucien and the Eclipse box of his documentaries, and it certainly deserves to. If he lacked the formal daring of Resnais, the zeitgeist canniness of Godard or the deeply felt melancholy of Truffaut, he made up for it with a profound curiosity and empathy for characters, places and small moments that run as threads through all his work.

In the essay that accompanies the Murmur DVD, critic Michael Sragow notes that " his best movies pivoted on signature moments of violent or chaotic release—there was always a volatile temperament simmering under that virtuoso surface," and traces this style to Malle's reliance on improvisation, learned when making documentaries in India the mid-to-late sixties. He quotes Malle: “I think this experience of relying on my instincts was quite decisive in my work...I’ve always tried to rediscover the state of innocence that I found so extraordinary working in India.” Such a quote suggests why he was the perfect director for a talkfest like My Dinner With Andre: that project needed a director who was both unobtrusive and deeply curious, whose instincts could pinpoint just how to frame a philosophical, rambling (and wonderful) conversation about art, politics and meaning in a way that was cinematic without overpowering the speakers, wryly commenting on its characters' flaws and fantasies without fingerpointing. Malle is no less sensual than any of his New Wave contemporaries, but it's a quieter kind of sensuality, one that only reveals itself in glances and quick moments, like the flash of lightning (there and then gone) that Walter Benjamin described as the truest kind of knowledge.

It made Malle a wonderful documentarian of French history. Witness Lacombe, Lucien, a film of purposeful opacity-- it's hard to know precisely what's happening or why, and Malle works hard to establish an almost documentary distance between subject matter and viewer. It's a film whose winding, anecdotal narrative only reveals its true fascistic horror halfway through, and by then, we're so imbricated in its web of relations that gaining an easy, moralistic distance becomes impossible. This kind of methodology found its most acclaimed expression in Au Revoir, Les Enfants, Malle's autobiographical look at life in a French boarding school during the Occupation. Given its school setting and feel for adolescent rivalry, it's perhaps the most "Truffautish" of Malle's works, although the explicit political context (Malle was actually a political science student before switching to filmmaking) distinguishes it from The 400 Blows, makes you constantly aware of the ghosts of history that envelope the schoolboys. Glances are famously key to the narrative's twists and turns, but what I mostly remember are colors: blacks, grays, dark blues and forest greens, a heavy palette that suggested chiaroscuro painting.

Are these the tricks of memory (I haven't seen the movie in 20 years)? Perhaps, but then the fluidity of memory was as key a motif for Malle as it was for Alain Resnais, and his finely tuned sense of how to express politics emotionally means his work has dated better than Godard's Dziga Vertov period agitprop. More than anything, Malle felt like a jazz sideman in a filmmaker's body (think of how well Miles Davis matched with him-- two cool bop sensibilities jamming in the same frame-- on Elevator to the Gallows), trusting his instincts and his environment as generators of creativity. One of my favorite anecdotes involves Malle being mistaken for his friend Truffaut by tourists in New York and Paris. "Mr. Truffaut, we love your work, can we have your autograph?," Malle would claim they'd ask. His response was that of a true improviser, and a slyly generous wit: "Oh, thank you, of course you can," he'd smile-- then sign Truffaut's name.

Happy birthday, Louis Malle.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Tricks and Treats

There's No Crying In Baseball

So, the Red Sox have won the World Series. Good for them, and their fans. As I noted earlier, I had no real emotional stake in the outcome, although I tend to cheer for AL teams over NL teams (especially when the latter pimp their religion so heavily), and I can admire the excellence of the Sox. But mostly, I think the win is great because it might finally be a moment when Red Sox fans have to let go of their underdog complex.

The New York Times talked about this last week, but I think it goes beyond the fan base's inability to conceive of themselves as top dogs, and gets to the heart of what it means to identify as a fan more generally. Call it the "Lost Cause" mentality of a fan base, how tightly knit losing is to one's self-image, how pity can become a rhetorical weapon. Just last week, Sports Illustrated ran a letter from an irate Soxhead complaining that the magazine had put the team on the cover, thus invoking the famous "SI Jinx." "Haven't Red Sox fans suffered enough?," the letter wailed.

Suffered. Sure, with that whole World Series win in 2004. With eleven Series appearances in their history, 12 AL pennants, seven East Division titles, and five wild card berths. Suffering through having to watch hacks like Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Johnny Damon, Curt Schilling and Manny Ramirez all these years. Suffering through Ken Burns' hagiographic Sox tribute film, Baseball. Suffering with a $140 million payroll (but remember-- the Yankees are the 'evil empire'). In 2004, Salon asked numerous famous BoSox fans if they'd prefer a John Kerry presidential win or a BoSox World Series win that year, and it was a real struggle for most of them to decide. I suspect that's not just because of their political leanings, or love of team, but because winning would mean, in the words of Keith Olbermann, that Red Sox fans "had less to bitch about," and that loss would hurt far more than a ball through Bill Buckner's legs.

Look, I live just outside of Cleveland, so I know all about how sports identities can be defined through losing (I'm a Browns fan, for crying out loud). But isn't it time to let go of the myth of the underdog, that frankly condescending "cheer" that implies, "We never really thought you could win, and that's why we love you"? It's funny that the Red Sox sport so many prominent Democrats among their fans, even as the team and their partisans in the press work hard to spin the notion that the Red Sox are the team you'd want to have a beer with. It's a pose that's worked well for them through the years: When the Yankees spend money, they're being cutthroat, when the Red Sox spend, they're competitive; when the Oakland A's use sabermetrics, they're hurting the game, when the Red Sox do it, they're being shrewd; when other teams lose, they've choked, when the Red Sox do it, they've been poetic; when other teams didn't sign Jackie Robinson, it was a sign of prejudice, when the Red Sox didn't , it was...well, we won't talk about that.

Maybe it's time to let this woe-is-me, jus' folks, have-your-cake-and-whine-in-it-too mindset go. Spoon might have sung, "You got no use for the underdog/That's why you will not survive," but I'd argue that just the opposite is true-- it's our addiction to underdogs that's really hurting us. Enjoy your triumph, Red Sox fans, but more than anything, take pride in it. Revel in it, and in your new status as baseball godfathers. After all, learning to accept success is just as important as embracing your failures.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

It Was 20 Years Ago Today...

For a decade often reviled as all glitz and no substance, the 1980s was a remarkably rich one for pop music (and is it the supreme irony of the 80s that even its critics are reduced to thinking about it through simplistic, advertising-derived binaries like "all glitz, no substance"?). New wave, postpunk, synthesized funk and hazily filtered 60s nostalgia all collided to create a landscape rich with possibility for artists imaginative enough to walk through it, instead of just holing up with old copies of Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy and lamenting their faded youth.

For me, the two key years are 1984 and 1987. The first saw a number of artists make commercial and/or artistic breakthroughs after years of trying to define or redefine their sounds: R.E.M. released Reckoning, where Michael Stipe's muffled drawl finally came out of the shadows, along with the band's keen postfolk pop writing sensibilities, that odd mixture of Faulkner, James Dean and the Monkees that they'd soon ride to commercial glory; U2 would team up with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois to offer The Unforgettable Fire, an album of ambient drift and frustrated longing whose hit single, "Pride (In The Name of Love)" sounds almost nothing like the rest of the record; Minneapolis drunkards The Replacements sobered up enough to realize they had the decade's most underrated songwriter, Paul Westerberg, hiding in their group, and released the stuttering, yelping, beautiful-despite-its-best-efforts Let It Be; Bruce Springsteen was already a star, but Born in the USA would make him a superstar, while introducing the political contradictions to his persona that he's grappling with to this day; and Prince would have the year's biggest triumph, commercially and artistically, with the soundtrack to Purple Rain, confirmation-- if any was needed-- that he was his generation's Paul McCartney, a ridiculously gifted musical genius capable of almost anything (and, like McCartney, just as capable of doing nothing much, sometimes on the same record where he'd knock your socks off).

That's a remarkably fine year, even without all the other important artists (Husker Du, Talking Heads, Madonna, Michael Jackson) and one-hit pleasures I haven't mentioned, which the year provided in spades (the sheer pop bliss of Huey Lewis's Sports, for instance, which was all over the radio that year). That's why it's even more remarkable that all artists mentioned in the paragraph would come back with even stronger efforts three years later.

20 years and three weeks ago, on October 9, 1987, Springsteen released Tunnel of Love, an album of dark, glistening chiaroscuro pop-country whose quiter tone and lyrical intimacy (lyrical nakedness, really) was a shock to many after the stadium-sized anthems of Born in the USA and the E-Street Live boxed set from the previous year. It capped a remarkable 12-month period that saw pop's most interesting artists stretching themselves in every direction to see what their styles could encompass.

I'll admit my own nostalgia for this moment: I was fourteen that year, really just discovering and claiming the pop on the radio as my own, a touchstone of identity instead of just the background noise of parties and car rides. I was listening to a lot of Beatles that fall-- I'd fallen in love with the Meet The Beatles! cassette after hearing "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" on the radio on the way to a high school football game-- and much of my perspective on the contemporary sounds of the period was filtered through a retro-sixties nostalgia (or in my case, nostalgia for what I never knew) that was everywhere that year (baby boomers never tired of telling the young'uns what they missed twenty years earlier, in the Summer of Love) (still don't tire, actually, as any given issue of Rolling Stone this past summer will probably confirm: hey guys, it was 40 years ago, but don't worry-- Moby Grape still rules!). Many of the artists listed above were also thinking about 60s pop, rock and soul that year, but they used that fascination to craft new sounds which hold up just as well, I'd argue, as Sgt. Pepper or Blonde on Blonde. Here are six records, in chronological order, that suggest 1987 was a golden age of pop:

1. XTC, Skylarking (released Oct. 21, 1986): Is there a stranger voice in contemporary pop than Andy Partridge's? If one of the Aristocats took LSD, then gurgled ginger ale while mourning his lost love, we might have some approximation of it. That voice has kept some people from diving into XTC's music (I distinctly remember my mom's pained expression when I popped Oranges & Lemons into the car stereo one day, and I've tried in vain to put XTC songs on friend's mix tapes as enablers), but like Dylan's or Billie Holiday's, it's a quirky instrument that's perfectly suited for the songs it performs. XTC's power, in fact, derives from how Partridge's pained yelp rubs up against his melodic genius, as if Spike Jonze and Brian Wilson had a musical love child. Stepping into Skylarking-- part concept album, part sonic grab-bag, but all good--is like drifting through a world where, to paraphrase Peter Fonda's character in The Limey, you've never been there, you don't speak the language, but somehow you get around. The kneejerk critical comparisons when it was released (especially with 'The Summer of Love' on the horizon) were to Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, analogies enhanced by the participation of producer Todd Rundgren (with whom Partridge apparently had epic battles). You can certainly hear the Beatles on the record, especially in the way the trio of songs that close out side one-- the glistening "Ballet for a Rainy Day," the mournful "1000 Umbrellas" and the bucolic "Season Cycle"-- blur and lead into one another, like one painting melting on top of another. And the chirping crickets that open the album owe something to George Martin and Geoff Emerick. But nothing Lennon and McCartney wrote had the psychotic stalker edge of "1000 Umbrellas," or the loopy naivete of "That's Really Super, Supergirl," the jazziness of "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul," or the stark 12th century tone of "Sacrificial Bonfire." And whatever door John opened with his "bigger than Jesus" comment in 1966, Andy Partridge kicks down with the scathing "Dear God." As with Elvis Costello on Imperial Bedroom, XTC play with their obvious debts to the Beatles and other 60s icons, not slavishly recreating a past sound but taking it somewhere else, at once more disturbing, but also inviting, funny, moving and deeply (wonderfully) strange.

2. U2, The Joshua Tree (released March 9, 1987): First things first-- this is not U2's best album. That would come four years later, as band arguments, Berlin and a serious Bowie fixation would produce Achtung Baby, the glorious mixture of screeching guitars, hip-hop loops and filtered vocals that kicked off the band's most productive decade.

The Joshua Tree might be the band's most important record, though, especially if we take the word "record" with a doubled meaning: not only as a cohesive collection of ambient country/pop gems, but as a document that marks a specific moment in the group's history. Working for the second time with fifth Beatle Brian Eno and co-producer Daniel Lanois, the songs were famously the end result of friendly tensions in the band, between Bono's fascination with American musical traditions like gospel and country (and writers like Raymond Carver and Salman Rushdie), and the Edge's desire to throw off blues traditions in favor of more Enoesque sustained chords and the kinds of dreamy landscapes the band had stumbled upon with The Unforgettable Fire.

More records, this time of pop trends, as the album was perfectly timed to capture both the growing nostalgia for the 1960s (the group was quickly dubbed its generation's Beatles, a framework they don't really fit, despite Bono's RIngo-like schnozz) and the growing power of college radio and "alternative" rock (to say nothing of alt-country: it's easy to hear Grant-Lee Phillips, R.E.M. and the Cowboy Junkies in here). The subsequent Time magazine cover, two-year tour and disastrous concert film Rattle & Hum would kick the band's profile into the stratosphere, a mixed legacy they're wrestling with to this day.

This was the first U2 record I ever heard, and it was rather opaque to me at the time: for all the comparisons to the Beatles and Dylan, there's little on here that replicates the jangly joy of those artists (with the possible exception of "Trip Through Your Wires," a blissful, guitar-and-harmonica-driven romp through Irish folk-pop); instead, it sounded as bleak and impenatrable as the moody, dusty landscapes on the cover. I didn't get it, and while I admired the band's politics (precocious fourteen-year-olds are naturally drawn towards Bono's finger-pointing, 80s messiah persona), it wasn't until I went back and fell in love with The Unforgettable Fire (listened to through walkman headphones on long family car trips, the perfect space to let the sounds drift with the passing scenery) that I could return to The Joshua Tree with fresh ears.

It holds up remarkably well, given its slightly inflated reputation. The best songs, as on The Unforgettable Fire. are those that sustain a mood: the slalom-down-the-guitar-strings opening of "Where The Streets Have No Name," the gospel phrasing of "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," and the transcendent "With Or Without You," as lovely, ambiguous and frightening a song as ever graced pop radio in the 80s: with its throbbing baseline, it's literally the album's pulse. Its most prescient tune, though, is probably "Running to Stand Still," a dark acoustic gem, full of Bono's harsh whispers, whose thornier, unresolved emotions draw the band a map from the simplistic sloganeering of War-era stadium rock to the more mature problems of the heart that would dominate their work in the 90s.

3. Prince, Sign O' The Times (released March 30, 1987): Call it Paul McCartney Syndrome: when you're easily the most talented musician of your generation, and have already transformed the pop landscape several times over, anything less than revelation might strike your fan base as a disappointment.

Such is the fate of Prince Rogers Nelson, ne Symbol/Glyph, ne Hermaphrodite, ne The Artist Formerly Known As Relevant (as a roommate put it in college). He's produced a lot of spectacular music in the last twenty years-- from the soul/pop Freudian struggle of Graffiti Bridge to the sharp craftsmanship of Diamonds and Pearls and The Gold Experience to the sprawling, fascinating mess of Emancipation and Crystal Ball. Even his more recent, mannered work like Musicology and 3121 always contains a few moments of brilliance amidst the grand old man gestures and blues cliches.

Still, for many people, the 1980s will always be his strongest period, and when you drop a flat-out masterpiece like Sign O'' The Times, it's hard to argue the point.

Let me be clear: this is not only the best album of 1987, or the best album of the decade, but I think it's one of the five greatest pop records of all time. It would top my "Desert Island Disc" list, and it sounds every bit as fresh as it did 20 years ago. It was the culmination of a remarkably rich period for Prince, stretching from the new wave funk of Dirty Mind to the robotic soul apocalypse of 1999, through the commercial triumph of Purple Rain and the esoteric Beatles pastiche of Around The World In A Day. The previous year, Prince had a #1 single with "Kiss" (and another top ten hit, "Manic Monday," which he wrote for the Bangles), and also dropped a huge cinematic bomb called Under The Cherry Moon.

I will defend the latter as a loopy, tongue-in-cheek, midnite movie delight (it's got lush cinematography and two oddly sincere performances from Steven Berkoff and Kristen Scott Thomas), but what's indisputable was the quality of its soundtrack: Parade was another slice of avant-pop bliss that confirmed Prince as the great musical gambler of his generation. Pitched somewhere between Sam Cooke, The Beatles and Phllip Glass, it was rock-pop bouncing like ping-pong balls through a glass cathedral; its taut guitars and tighter drum machines richocheted around sonic structures that were less songs than brilliant sketches. And it worked: "Girls and Boys," "Mountains," "Anotherloverholeinyohead" and the hooky "Kiss" sounded utterly modern and catchy, and like nothing else on the radio. Maybe that's why the album, despite the single's success, was a relative commercial failure. That lack of success caused Warner Brothers to ask Prince to transform his triple-disc project, Crystal Ball, into a more manageable two-disc set.

Prince balked, grumbled, and did it, and for once the record company was right: Sign O' The Times is both Prince's most musically ambitious and his most focused. From the opening chords of the socially conscious "Sign O' The Times" (Prince's constant insistence on the primacy of the groove deployed to devastating effect-- dance to this, he seems to be saying) to the closing sighs of "Adore," every track unfolds with the assurance, the bliss, the utter rightness that signals a genius at the top of his game.

There are so many great songs here, from the Sly and Family Stone jam of "Play In the Sunshine" to the ironic dance beats of "Housequake" ("Shut up, already-- damn!") to the wonderully trippy, deeply cinematic chamber pop of "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker." And that's just side one of disc one! I haven't even mentioned the steam that rises from "Hot Thing," the neuotic, self-critical lyrics of "Strange Relationship," the drum machine attack of "U Got The Look," the surrealism of "Starfish and Coffee," the oh-wee-ooh of "Gonna Be A Beautiful Night," or the pop perfection (and emotional generosity) of "I Could Never Take the Place Of Your Man." Good lord, even the b-sides ("Shockadelica," "La La Hee Hee") and bootlegs ("Power Fantastic") would make lesser artists' careers. If any album belies the myth that 80s rock was devoid of soul, it's this record from Minneapolis's favorite, prodigal son.

4. The Replacements, Pleased To Meet Me (released July 7, 1987): Of course, it's not like Prince was the only one working hard that year in Minneapolis.

If Prince is the prodigal son, Paul Westerberg is-- what? Its drunken layabout? Big disappointment? Beautiful loser?

I like to think of him as a man born out of time.

In an interview in 1989 with Musician magazine, around the time of Don't Tell A Soul, Westerberg quietly pondered what it would've been like to have been a pop musician in the 1960s, "when being big was the goal all the groups strove for." He dismissed the idea, but I think it's a revealing moment: like Kurt Cobain a few years later, Westerberg was (and is) a man of tremendous pop songwriting gifts with the bad luck to be born in a time when misguided ethos about "authentcity" caused those gifts to appear suspect.

You can hear it on 1983's Hootenany, as the shimmer of "Color Me Impressed" struggles to escape its speed-thrash arrangement; on 1984's Let It Be, with the lolloping country-rock of "I Will Dare"; and all over Tim, their major label breakthrough-that-never-quite-was. The mixed commercial response to that album colors a lot of Pleased To Meet Me, which drunkenly stumbles on the line between punk WTF and pop genius. But that tension also makes it the band's best record, because it holds all the band's possibilities in it; as Eric Rohmer once wrote of Rossellini's later work, "Everything in it is instructive, even the errors."

Aside from the overwrought teen angst of "The Ledge", there aren't a lot of errors here, just scorching postpunk speed and drunken humor ("I.O.U.", "I Don't Know," "Nightclub Jitters") bumping up aginst pop shimmer: "Alex Chilton," "Skyway," "Never Mind," and "Can't Hardly Wait," whose chunky horns point the way to the ghostly surf-pop of "I'll Be You" and Westerberg's solo work.

That last song would someday become the title of a Jennifer Love Hewitt film, which suggests a lot of people listened to this record, even if it only sold a fraction of anything else mentioned in this post. The Replacements would make one more album as a group, Don't Tell A Soul, and Westerberg would release a mostly-solo disc, the excellent All Shook Down under the band's name in 1990. By 1991, they were a memory, and Westerberg would find some success as a solo artist and producer. They'd never again find the kind of balance they had here, but does longevity really matter, when the burst of brilliance is as bright as this one?

5. R.E.M., Document (released Sept. 1, 1987): Cars doors click-click, open and shut. Were there fall leaves? (There must have been fall leaves, it was fall after all). I'm pretty sure there was some kind of fall street festival going on downtown, but that might just be my Fellini-fueled imagination. We were shooting a student film downtown, for a high school film festival, and I was with new friends that I barely knew, a naive young freshman amidst the ostensibly more mature juniors and seniors. What I mostly remember is the sense of ritual, a kind of indoctrination into inside jokes, arcane movie references and the independent record stores around the college campus. There's a big brown bag on Derek's lap, and he eagerly removes its contents, R.E.M.'s new albun, Document. Shamefully, I have no idea who R.E.M. is (hey, I was fourteen), although I later discover I've been hearing their new single on the radio a lot without knowing who played it. Derek, however, is psyched. No, geeked-- geeked is definitely a better word, his eyes lit up and his face a rapturous smile, as if he's Indiana Jones stumbling on the Ark of the Covenant. I think he even sang a jittle jingle: "I got the album, I got the album!," he repeats to us all. Like me, he's in choir, and sings at least as well as Michael Stipe.

Like everything else about this mysterious band, the album cover is an invitation into a more adult world, both welcoming and intimidating in its use of collage, and mixture of color and black and white. Is that a band member on the cover?, I wonder. And why does the "R.E.M. 5" scratching look so much like a Guess jeans label, with the "5" in a triangle? The music on Document is superb, of course-- one of the nice things about a lot of work this year is that bands achieve commercial breakthroughs with some of their strongest material (and the music R.E.M. makes in this period is so good they're still releasing it-- recent single "Bad Day" was first written and demo'ed for this record). But as I enter high school (itself a big ritual), I am already looking forward to college, and college rock, and the joy of listening to R.E.M., XTC, The Replacements, Robyn Hitchcock and so many others that friends, local college rock radio, and various music magazines turn me onto is the thrill of feeling like part of a cool subculture, one very different than the more "popular" stuff then dominating radio. Of course, it was not a ritual unique to me, but was in fact one repeated by probably every teenager with one piece of pop culture or another. R.E.M.'s popularity continued to grow, culminating in two albums, Out of Time and Automatic for the People-- the former released a month before i graduate from high school, the latter my sophomore year of college, an album that more than any other sounds like college in the fall to me (and there are no prettier leaves than those that fall in autumn in Brown County, IN). This might seem disappointing-- is there anything less cool than finding out others like your own personal cult item?-- but it ends up being an affirmation of the very qualities R.E.M. always embodied: their music, through all its play with subcultural codes, reminded you that you were not alone, that there was a larger world of mystery and wonder out there, and that the purpose was not to fetishize your eccentricity, but to build community around it, while maintaing that uncanny thrill of a crisp fall day.


"The lights go out and it's just the three of us/Yeah-- you, me and all that stuff we're so scared of..."

Bruce Springsteen, Tunnel of Love, (released Oct. 9, 1987): It's been read as a document of Springsteen's first, failing marriage; as an allegory for the temporary dissolution of the E Street Band; as a response to the overwhelming success of Born In The U.S.A.

How about reading it this way: as the best record of Bruce Springsteen's career? That's certainly how I hear it.

"It's a sad funny endin', when you end up pretendin/A rich man in a poor man's shirt," Springsteen would sing five years later on his most joyous single, "Better Days." I always loved that line, a witty rebuke to critics who wondered why he wasn't still writing the same songs about cars, girls, and gettin'-out-this-place, as well as an affirmation of what music critic Bill Flanagan once called the John Lennon, "songs about me" tradition with which Springsteen has always done an ambivalent dance. "I cannot be the punk in Hamburg anymore," Lennon pleaded just before his death, in order to justify the sappy (but wonderful) love songs on Double Fantasy. In that sense, although it's much darker, musically complex and, well, better than Lennon's last record, Tunnel of Love can be heard as his Double Fantasy, a declaration of the deeply personal as filtered through the hugely popular, an autobiography in disguise as a country-rock genre exercise, the richest example of what Shamus has brilliantly mapped out as Springsteen's cinephiliac impulses.

And, finally, it was a release from expectations: the huge, post-USA commercial expectations (I recall with a shudder that goes deeper than the Ohio chill an episode of Growing Pains from 1985, where Mike and his dad bond at a Springsteen concert, so you can understand what Bruce was trying to get out from under); the longstanding, "voice of his generation" expectations that weighed on him since Jon Landau declared him "the future of rock" in the mid-1970s; from the expectations that he'd always write about characters and generations and issues instead of his own heart. Critics at the time noted the album cover's allusions to Elvis, with the big white caddy and the country gentleman black suit (he looks like he's standing on the set of every video Chris Issak will ever make); I see it more as the final reply to "Thunder Road": Springsteen's narrator finally figured out how to make his one last chance real, to trade in his wings for some wheels, and to drive from an extended adolscence into a difficult maturity.

None of this, of course, tells you anything about the music, and it's important not to let autobiography or authorial intention overwhelm their extremely delicate beauty. As I type this, "Cautious Man" has just come up on my I-Tunes, the verse that references Night of the Hunter: "On his right hand, Billy tatooed the word 'lovin',' on the left hand, the word 'fear'...", then goes on to describe the house Billy builds for his lover that summer. It's a surreal, haunting lyric, all the moreso for being set to a quivering acoustic guitar, the strings finger-picked and shaking, until muted banks of keyboards come in as a kind of musical and emotional ballast for the character's broken lives. Or consider the way the hopscotch guitar of "One Step Up" dances up and down chord progressions as if not so much providing musical support for Springsteen's voice as embodying the song's title (the lyric itself covers the same emotional entropy as "Dancing In The Dark," but it's the quiet hangover to the earlier single's joyful buzz). Note how the bright keyboards and higher vocal registers of "All That Heaven Will Allow" bump up against the cynical, rockabilly glee of "Spare Parts," the latter song utterly undoing all the domestic bliss of the former. Has there been tauter drumming on a Springsteen single than that on "Brilliant Disguise," the neat smack! of the beat irreversibly pushing the narrator toward an unwanted revelation of the self, fueling his paranoia and doubt? What about the daring silence that opens "Tunnel of Love," several seconds of quiet that makes you think your stereo is broken before the hurdy -gurdy kicks in to hurl you into musical vertigo? Or ending the album with the lolling country of "Valentine's Day," which sounds like some great, lost Elvis Costello song from King of America, its narrator balanced between hope and hopelessness, searching through the cliches that litter his heart, that give him absolute certainty and make him completely clueless? He "misses his home," but he sure ain't returning to it.

For many of Springsteen's longtime fans, Tunnel of Love marked a similar demarcation, a similar point of no return. Springsteen would spend the next fifteen years ratcheting down expectations. He followed up Tunnel with an EP for Amnesty International, crafted two smart, adult-oriented pop discs (Lucky Town and Human Touch) that still don't get the attention they deserve, released a greatest hits disc with a great new song ("Secret Garden"), and tried to channel Woody Guthrie on 1995's frankly misguided Ghost of Tom Joad (I think the Tex-Mex of 2005's Devils and Dust covers this territory far more fruitfully). But for those willing to hop in Springsteen's Cadillac ("all the redemption I can offer is beneath this dirty hood..."), Tunnel of Love is a remarkably brave and bracing ride.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Notes on Anecdotal Theory Through The Radio

Telling stories is a kind of digging, as is listening. Holding hands in the dark like that just may be the sweetest, most profound way to do it, but it can happen sitting on chairs in a room of strangers, all of whom are paying for the privilege...When my friend Barrett Golding told me about an audio collage he was working on, recording a therapy group in Bozeman, Montana, I quoted him the old line, "If there's one thing people want to hear less than other people's problems, it's other people's dreams"....But listening to a tape of Barrett's finished work, each voice is in awe of what they've seen, becoming deeper over the crouched reverie of Joe Howard's score, played on the electric bass. The way these people talk to each other, listening to what seem more like prophesies and legends, warnings and visitations, than anything as everyday as dreams, takes on the religious function of congregation as their stories turn into conversations. As one man put it, "You don't exist separately."
--Sarah Vowell, Radio On: A Listener's Diary

Small Sensations and Aromatic Sensibilities

When the new issue of Newsweek arrived at my friend's apartment yesterday, I noticed what looked like an interesting article by their film critic David Ansen, all about his personal cinephilia. Sadly, the interest quickly faded.

What drew me in was his introduction:

On January 26, 1958 (the date is written in pencil), I began keeping a list of all the movies I'd seen, using lined notebook paper that I further divided in half so that I could get upwards of 50 movies per page. I was 12 years old. (Compulsive? I was too young to know the concept.) I would list the title on the left, then add the last names of the stars, and then give each movie a rating: Poor, Fair, Good, Very Good, Excellent, Superior. My scoring system was taken from a long-defunct magazine called The Motion Picture Herald.

I started by retroactively listing all the movies I'd seen since 1950, my memory aided by annual hardback anthologies called Screen World, which were compiled by my favorite uncle, Daniel Blum. These were my sacred texts.

The first entry is "Cinderella" (Very Good). At the top of the page, displayed like pennants of college football teams, were my favorite movies of all (12 years') time: "Giant," "Stalag 17," "High Noon," "Picnic," "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Carmen Jones." Two years later, in 1960 (on page seven, entry No. 308, "Sink the Bismarck!"), my cinematic sophistication having expanded, I began adding in parentheses the name of the director (Lewis Gilbert).

Excellent! This fascinated me for two reasons, one personal and one theoretical:

1) The personal: For the last 2 1/2 years, I've done this myself (he admits with trepidition-- although he was relieved to recently discover he wasn't alone). After years of being asked at family gatherings, "What films are good? What should I be watching? What have you seen lately?", I finally decided to keep a journal of the films I saw, on DVD, in theaters, and on TCM. My memory tends to be bad, and I'd always mention a few titles to an aunt or uncle at Thanksgiving, only to slap my head and say, "Frack! I should've thought of...!" This would give me a way to have a record, and also allow me to see patterns in my own cinephiliac desires-- like Nick Hornby's hero in High Fidelity, who writes his life through reorgs of his record collection, this would allow me to craft an autobiography while hardly having to pick up a pen.

2) The theoretical/formal: This seems like a cool spin on the usual magazine critic review, which is always subjective ("I like, I don't like..."), but also so often consumer-oriented (particularly in weeklies like Time and Newsweek, whose often-talented critics are constrained by limited space in a way that writers for The New Yorker or The Chicago Reader aren't) that it's difficult to get a real sense of a personality coming through. In foregrounding his own experience through the journal form, this seemed like a neat way to merge film history, critique and personal experience in the way theorists like Barthes or Gregory Ulmer call for: a dance of form, idea and memory.

There are some wonderfully evocative moments: Ansen's description of coming out of a matinee of Lawrence of Arabia and encountering hail for the first time; memories of watching Jerry Lewis in Greece, "where my brother Jim and I laughed at one thing while the Greek kids always laughed at another"; his lovely observation that in 1958, "my printing shifts from all caps to lowercase, and everything else seems to change, too, as adolescence sets in"; his invocation of more obscure titles (to me, anyway) like Blue Denim as being keys to his teenaged years.

I think the problem, for me, is telegraphed in the editor's blurb below the title: "When he was 12, Newsweek's [actually, as if channeling a pre-'58 Ansen, the magazine uses an all-caps typeface: "NEWSWEEK's"] David Ansen started a list of every film he'd seen. No. 1 was 'Cinderella.' The last is-- well, that's a long story. In fact, it's the story of his life, and of his generation."

It's the last line that nags, that shift from the personal to the communal, from the intimacy of the lowercase to the group weight of the uppercase. Midway through the article, it stops being so much about Ansen's life, and becomes more a record of the baby boomer's (or at least a narrow, generalizable slice of it) journey through the sixties and seventies. And there's nothing in it that one couldn't guess: a young teen is besotted by Cat on A Hot Tin Roof and other 50s Hollywood stabs at Freudian subtext; shifts his interests to the French New Wave and other international superstars like Fellini and Satyajit Ray just as the Beatles open up a world of rock and counter-culture to his college-aged self; sees The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde (and they really speak to him!) before dropping out and joining a commune; sticks his head out of the woods long enough to catch McCabe and Mrs. Miller, then soon drops back into society as a film critic just in time for Hollywood's supposed "Second Golden Age" in the early 70s, a period which ends when Star Wars comes along to make him feel old again. It's kind of like Peter Biskind filtered through My So-Called Life, not sure how to move between genuflecting at approved masterpieces, and occasionally offering terse glimpses of what happened to that bright young boy who earnestly marked in his journal.

Ansen's a talented writer, and he has good taste. I think the problem is not so much the conventionality of his experience as the conventionality of the histories he's dealing with, and the difficulty of escaping those approved forms, the approved routes through history. It's similar to the problem Julie Taymor faced with with Across The Universe: how do you make the past speak, especially when you're dealing with a period so deified (and jealously marked off by its generation's gatekeepers)? Taymor couldn't quite avoid the conventional narratives, either, but she at least reimagined well-worn songs in strikingly insane ways; Ansen seems less willing to cut loose, even noting at one point, "I'll spare you the psychedelic (and stereotypical) details of my personal transformation." Please don't! Those kinds of unique personal moments are a great way to re-map a space, to dodge the death-by-obligation that enervates so much film critique. Writing just as a young David Ansen is stumbling out of the theater and into the hail, Andrew Sarris struggled with this idea of how to name the unnameable:

In one sequence of La Regle du Jeu, Renoir gallops up the stairs, turns to his right with a lurching movement, stops in hoplike uncertainty when his name is called by a coquettish maid, and then, with marvelous postreflex continuity, resumes his bearishly shambling journey to the heroine’s boudoir. If I could describe the musical grace moment of that momentary suspension, and I can’t, I might be able to provide a more precise definition of the auteur theory. As it is, all I can do is point at the specific beauties of interior meaning on the screen and, later, catalogue this moments of recognition.

Those are the kinds of cinephiliac moments, those electric moments of recognition and identification, that critics have struggled with for years-- struggling because they're outside our more conventional narratives about film history and theory, and yet crucial for exactly the same reason. Perhaps we need a new auteur theory, not of directors, but of our own identities mapped onto the screen?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Tears for Fears

Like Shamus, I seem to lack the horror movie gene, and his piece on why he wasn't doing the horror blogging thing this Hallow's Eve really spoke to me (and also had some broader implied points about blogthink that I thought were interesting). However, Jonathan's piece about horror-films-that-aren't-really-horror-films also made me think: what do we really get scared by when we go to the movies?

"I like, I don't like," Roland Barthes wrote. "All of this has no meaning," he admitted, except that it meant "my body is not the same as yours. Hence, from this foam of tastes rises a bodily enigma which requires complicity, or irritation." Sounds like a horror film to me. Hence, a list (in no particular order) of films whose preachy sanctimoniousness, overwrought visuals, smug hipsterism, sappy sentiment or sheer awfulness scare the bejeezus out of me (no links-- I'm not that mean):

1. Crash
2. Pay It Forward
3. Requiem For A Dream
4. Forrest Gump
5. The Ladykillers (Coen version)
6. Pirates of the Carribean 2
7. On The Beach
8. Rent
9. Planet of the Apes (Tim Burton version)
10. Shakes the Clown
11. Swept Away (Madonna version)
12. the opening credits to St. Elmo's Fire
13. Sin City
14. Batman and Robin
15. Battlefield Earth

Mash-Ups: Across The Universe

I think it was the flaming strawberries that got to me.

Julie Taymor's Across the Universe is a batshit insane piece of work, whose combination of outre musical numbers, single entendre cultural history and aching earnestness make it simultaneously the campiest and most passionate movie I've seen in a long time.

To paraphrase Chris Eigeman's character in Metropolitan, "I guess you could say it's extremely vulgar, I like it a lot."

That's not to say it's a great movie, but that it scrambles the critical senses in a manner similar to the way it mashes up Broadway form, Beatles songs, and American cultural memory, so that what's good about it has pieces of what's bad about it mixed in, and vice versa (remember, the working title of "Yesterday" was "Scrambled Eggs"). Susan Sontag, writing in the same period in which the film is set, noted that a response to camp (or a camp response, a distinction and overlap Across The Universe plays with a lot) meant a simultaneous attraction and repulsion to the object at hand; she also predicted Julie Taymor's uneven mixture of signifiers when she observed, “Any sensibility which can be crammed into the mold of a system, or handled with the rough tools of proof, is no longer a sensibility at all. It has hardened into an idea…” Taymor's sensibility seems to be exactly that Sontag wrote of in 1963, where a “spirit of extravagance” is celebrated, and whose taste “turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment." This is a “mode of seduction,” Sontag notes, full of “gestures full of duplicity, with a witty meaning for cognoscenti and another, more impersonal, for outsiders." At its best, Across The Universe pulses with an audacious, what-the-hell spirit that can include the aforementioned flaming and exploding strawberries as a metaphor for Vietnam (no, I'm not making this up), that can find a space for Bono playing a Ken Kesey knockoff named "Doctor Robert" (and looking a lot like Robin Williams these days, I might note), that takes tremendous pleasure in Eddie Izzard's yelping rendition of "Being for The Benefit of Mr. Kite"; at its worst, it hardens into very conventional ideas-- catechisms, really-- about the 1960s that it clings to for dear life, in the misguided belief that it gives the film depth.

I really like the way the film works to revive the revue structure of earlier Broadway musicals: the film is less a "narrative" in the sense of a post-Rodgers and Hammerstein "integrated" show than a loose clothesline of plot onto which she can hang numbers (which, with typological character names like "Jude," "Lucy" and "Prudence," is probably just as well-- there's nothing in terms of character development that you couldn't predict from the film's trailer). It helps that she's working with the deepest, most inexhaustible songbook in all of rock. Whatever the advantages or drawbacks of her various stagings, it's always pleasurable to hear Lennon-McCartney (and occasionally Harrison) songs for 2-plus hours, and her Broadway training means the numbers are nearly always visually engaging (nothing here rivals the sheer crappiness of Robert Stigwood's ill-advised Sgt. Pepper film), and sometimes breathtaking. I really liked the Grease-style sock-hop-at-bowling-alley version of "I've Just Seen A Face," whose leaping dancers and quick cutting nicely captures the youthful effervescence of that underrated folk piece, and also appreciated the Python-style animation that engulfs Izzard's "Mr. Kite" number. There's a discomforting mixture of wit, arrogance, imagination and obvious sloganeering to the "I Want You" number, staged at an Army recruiter's, that manages to enlighten through infuriating: yes, it seems over-the-top, and it is, but so is what she's making fun of (it's also a nice nod to similarly smug numbers in shows of the period, like Hair). There are some great nods to Beatles history (like the green apple-- whole and half-cut-- that pops up halfway through the film, or just how much Jim Sturgess really looks like a young Paul McCartney). And thankfully, Taymor's cast can really sing, a pleasant surprise in this non-musical age.

If the film has a central flaw, it's that, for all its visual audacity, there's no actual audacity to the ideas in Across The Universe, no real challenge to the mythologies that have calcified around our understanding of the 1960s; instead, the arc follows a very familiar narrative (naive kids move to the city, fall in with rockers and hippies, discover drugs and free love, get drafted, wounded, fight for true love, etc.) that tends to teach us what we think we already know. It's a single entendre approach that's echoed in the musical numbers, which look fantastic, but rarely escape a literal interpretation-- when a boy leaves his girlfriend in England, he sings "All My Loving," and an angry anti-revolutionary sings "Revolution" to an SDS-style group (as my friend Mike said, "I knew which number was coming when he stood in front of the picture of Chairman Mao"). All of this means some of the complexity--and hence joy-- of the Beatles songs is lost. Yes, they sang about love and peace and drugs with great sincerity, but also a lot of wit and doubt; there's a musical and lyrical toughness to the Beatles-- not a macho toughness, but a wry Teddy Boy distance-- that made them their generation's best chroniclers: they were both inside everything that happened in the 60s, but also slightly outside it, with far more perspective than, say, Donovan. It's hard for Taymor's film, despite the passage of time, to get that kind of perspective, and the end result is sometimes a bit too boomer-pandering, a bit too "history by Rolling Stone" for my tastes (it's notable that the majority of its song selections come from 1966 and beyond, for instance, with the Beatles' more rock-and-mod oriented, '62-'65 material mostly getting the shaft, as it might complicate the flowers-in-the-rifle ethos Taymor wants to celebrate).

So, in the end, it's a flawed film, but one I'm glad to have around. After all, how many times do we get to hear a lovely blues-guitar rendition of "A Day in The Life," or get to see Bono in a walrus mustache, talking in a Jack Nicholson patois?

It's Nice To Go Traveling

Trip Notes:

-- The sign at the Delta counter proudly proclaims: "Clean Airplanes and Dirty Martinis! We're making changes at Delta." The second one is worth trumpeting, to be sure, but-- should we worry that "clean airplanes" is a new thing that they're really excited about?

--Slips of the tongue: Our flight attendant announces that we're decending into the "Atlantis Regional Airport." I know the town is famous for its Underground, but curse myself for not bringing Fantastic Four #4 as a training manual for the trip.

-- Despite their nouveau "cleanliness," clearly our prop plane didn't get the memo, feeling more like the plane Indiana Jones escapes from Shanghai in towards the beginning of Temple of Doom: cramped, with torn carpets, ripped seats, and a broken arm rest that kinda bends when my neighbor lifts it up. Assuming it could jump a puddle might be optimistic. The flight attendant in the hot pink tank top, who reminds me of Jean Smart on Designing Women, is very nice about it, saying she will report it to the airline. As we taxi down the runway, the roar of the propellers is echoed by the white noise of the screaming one-year old a few rows back.

--Muggy heat greets the plane in Gainesville. I'd forgotten about the beauty of Florida light, how it seems to refract and reflect so differently than the flatter midwestern light of Cineville. Its brightness clears away the mental fog of the trip. Good to be back in town.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Sensual Propriety

I was very sad to read of the death of Deborah Kerr today, and was going to write a longer post, but so many good bloggers got to it before me. So, I urge you to go to read wonderful tributes from Edward Copeland, Bob Westal, and everyone's favorite cinephiliac chanteuse, the remarkable Self-Styled Siren, whose remembrances are by turns analytical, historical, anecdotal and effusive. For myself, I will note the small irony that she died a day before Joey Bishop, with whom she shared a Frank Sinatra connection, and also say that I was taken by this part of a fine New York Times tribute: "She could be virginal, ethereal, gossamer and fragile, or earthy, spicy and suggestive, and sometimes she managed to display all her skills at the same time."

It's the "or" in the sentence that seems like a mistake: it strikes me that one of her many contributions to screen acting was to remind us of what a false binary "suggestive" and "ethereal" is. Just watch her in the clip above, from Black Narcissus: yes, it helps that it's a Powell and Pressburger film, brilliantly photographed by Jack Cardiff, but her nervous movement around the room, her glancing walk through the courtyard, and all those magnificent close-ups of her quivering, ambiguous expressions convey a tremendous sensuality, an actress skilled at portraying characters desperate to keep their desires under control, often failing and finding humanity and transcendence in that failure. “The camera always seems to find an innate gentility in me,” she said in an interview, but through that gentility, she was able suggest a far broader range of emotions, and to imbue many a romantic melodrama with tremendous depth: her playing with Cary Grant in An Affair To Remember-- wry and knowing in the early shipboard scenes, uncertain but open to new experiences on the island, and perfectly pitched in the famously teary final sequence-- is a textbook example of skilled craftspeople drying out and making real a very sappy tale.

Like so many of the bloggers you'll read today, however, my favorite performance of hers is in Powell and Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. She's quite wonderful in the early scenes, a "Mata Hari" leading a British convoy in high pursuit through London, trying to warn General Wynn-Candy of their plans (she's very funny with the physicality of the scene, and I wish she'd made more comedies); as "Edith," she plays beautifully off Roger Livesey in their drawing room meeting in Berlin, striving to maintain her propriety through her nervousness (her body remains stiffbacked, but her eyes dart up and down to judge his intentions), until Livesey's delcaration-- "Cheer up! England isn't as bad as all that, you know!"-- causes her face to light up, as if she's found a kindred soul.

Two moments in the film, especially, stand out. One comes following the famous duel, an hour or so into the film. Candy and his rival-turned-friend, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, are hospitalized, and as they recover, Kerr is a constant visitor. A "bridge four" is organized, consisting of Theo and Frau von Kalteneck. What was, until the new couple arrived, a series of intimate and ironic close-ups (Edith can't take her eyes off Candy as he teaches her bridge, while Candy is oblivious to her feelings, a joke made even more apparent by a bandage that covers the edges of his eyes) becomes a series of long and medium shots, as Edith is pushed and squeezed into the background. She is isolated first with Theo in a separate shot (Frau von Kalteneck is monopolizing Candy), but even when they're brought together, Candy is looking at the other characters in the frame. Westal describes it very nicely in his post:

In this scene, she is gambling over a coin toss with her friend, with whom she is probably falling in love — only to be distracted when someone else falls for her and bothers to tell her so.

This very small moment expresses the easygoing intimacy between the two. In fact, I said “probably falling in love” because I’ve never been fully convinced that her character in this sequence was necessarily in love with Roger Livesey’s Blimp, though he later realizes he’s blown a crucial opportunity. So believable are they as close friends in moments like this, it’s possible that she’d just as soon not ruin things with too much emotion, and thus when an equally good, arguably superior, man expresses an open interest, she makes another selection.

That's a great and thoughtful description, but I disagree: I think she is in love, but again struggles to control her emotions when they might wreck the moment. It's a quintessential Deorah Kerr moment, nicely underplayed and beautifully captured by Powell and Pressburger in a subtle, almost throwaway style. We are offered a sustained passage of frustration and heartbreak covered up by good manners, that suggests how quickly and unnoticeably a life can suddenly change for the worse, how history can be changed by a seemingly inoccuous card game.

The second moment comes two hours or so into the film, as military aide "Johnny" (Kerr's third part in the film) drives Theo home from Candy's house. Framed in close-up, her face half-enclosed in dancing shadow, Johnny tells of how she became a driver, of her boyfriend in the army, answering Theo's questions in a matter-of-fact manner that's completely different from Kerr's more dramatic or comedic tone in the earlier sections of the film. Without calling attention to it, she is the embodiment of wartime calm and "stiff upper lip" straightforwardness. They miss a light, and she turns slightly to address the passenger in the back, as reddish-pink sidelightling drenches her face. She looked beautiful before, framed in the shadowy close-up; now, with her face aglow, she is a luminous vision, the light bringing out the brightness of her lips. Music from earlier in the film kicks in, but Kerr's performance doesn't change: she is still "Johnny" like before, but Theo (and we) see her differently. It is in Kerr's performance that the movie's complex visions of history and memory become literally embodied: we are both here and there, in the present and ceaselessly drawn back to the past (which is also the future, since the movie starts at the end), and what can best reveal this vertiginous relationship? Light projected on Deborah Kerr: the cinema.