Monday, November 30, 2009

A Month of Music Videos (Flaming Lips, Lady Gaga, Rihanna)

Monthly music video roundup! I bet it sounds like this is something I do regularly, doesn't it? Well, it isn't, and I doubt it will ever happen again.


As a man who did a thesis on music videos, I was excited to find that November 2009 was a month of buzz about some new work in the field... specifically, there are three new videos creating buzz, and I'm pretty impressed with them. They are, in no particular order, Lady Gaga's Bad Romance, Rihanna's Russian Roulette, and The Flaming Lips' Watching the Planets (warning: definitely definitely NSFW).

I give at least one award to every competitor. Here they are.

Lady Gaga's Bad Romance

This award goes to the video that takes a story that can be summed up in one sentence ("I'm drugged and abducted, sold for sex, and turn out to be too much for my buyer to handle") and makes it into a platform for epic deconstruction of fashion, sexuality, and the body, among a number of other things. And I have to hand it to Gaga... nobody does "explosive" quite like she does. Each successive image in this video is striking, from the erotic to the disturbing, and the central themes -- fashion, spectacle, and subliminal violence -- hold them all together.

The Flaming Lips' Watching the Planets

The Flaming Lips' use of nudity has come up a lot in the buzz, but that's definitely not the most harrowing part of this video, which is so in-your-face that it's almost gruesome. The most intense part of the video is the main "prop," with its yonic orifice, and the general implication of the narrative, which portrays a reverse birthing of that lead singer guy. This is an idea worthy of Cronenberg (in fact, I'm gonna watch the Brood some time this week! Maybe I'll expand on this blog post)... we may use the womb as an image of warmth and comfort at times, but I think we all ultimately cringe at the idea of being forced back into it. There's a lot of anxiety buried under this music video concept, and I think it makes for one of the scarier images of the year, an image of profound unbeing, as the gift of life is revoked.

Rihanna's Russian Roulette

I think Rihanna really gets what makes a good music video. You don't have time to tell an elaborate story, or make a nuanced political statement... you may be able to challenge some authoritative ideas (Like a Prayer), or evoke some powerful emotions (Closer), but what a good video comes down to is the striking power of a cinematic image. The images in Russian Roulette strike all the right chords... they're vastly suggestive without being too complex, hiding a narrative behind each composition, but never frustrating us with the lack of further exposition. They're evocative, rather than being "symbolic" per se (over-reliance on symbolism may be an issue in videos such as Estranged, although I absolutely love it anyway).

Most importantly, Rihanna's images are mysterious and beautiful and powerful, reiterating the themes of the song: frustration, lack of control, and the desperation and anxiety of living on the edge of a knife.

I like Rihanna's video the best, but as you can see from the three worthy contenders above, the music video is absolutely a living art form. It's an art form that's designed to create buzz, and as buzz becomes a more powerful force (via the blogosphere, YouTube, etc), I think the music video will undergo some serious development and revolution. Blogs like Motionographer and Shape + Colour are providing the buzz required for new creators to break into the traditionally corporate genre, and a lot of these young directors seem to be crowding onto Vimeo, where authorship is strongly emphasized.

One thing I notice about these three videos is that none of them has a "performance" section that's broken away from the main narrative/conceptual footage. This is a major tradition among video direction... even apart from videos that are completely performance-based (Bjork's Big Time Sensuality), we find performance sections even in heavily narrative pieces like November Rain, Janie's Got a Gun, and... uhhh... Behind These Hazel Eyes. Is it because the live performance aspect of music-making is being deemphasized, as remix culture and audio post-production take stronger roles in the creative process?

I don't know. I just know the art form seems to be continuing to blossom, and I continue to be excited about it.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Fantastic Mr Fox: Good Job, Wes and Raold

Raold Dahl and Wes Anderson are people who have created very personal, stylized worlds over the course of their storytelling careers. Raold Dahl's world is whimsical and exaggerated, acting according to a sort of unfamiliar logic (unfamiliar to us adults, perhaps, because it's a magical and childlike logic). His logic straddles the line of the non-sequitor at times, and his characters are painted in such clumsy splashes of personality that they can be grotesque and almost aversive. Wes Anderson is the complimentary opposite, creating emotional landscapes that are subdued and formal, sometimes clinical, like we're watching them interact in an emotional locked box (represented, in part, by the closed locations where his stories unfold: the Royal manor, Steve Zisou's submarine, Rushmore Academy). However, even in their dissimilarity, these two storytellers reach a similar place: both create worlds that are so spontaneous that they seem naked, bare and overexposed in their quirky internal logics.

It's interesting to see what happens when you cross-pollinate such different personalities. In the case of these two, the result is The Fantastic Mister Fox, which I can attest is a great movie.

The adaptation of Dahl's story moves quickly, but its over-arching themes -- confidence, the need for approval, and the larger commitment to marriage and community -- bring the frenetic plot together into a strong story. The pacing is fun, but the plot doesn't scream "fascinating" or "experimental" (or "pretentious," luckily). The film's true hook is its timing and comedic effect, and in this regard, Anderson hereby proves himself an adept. He gives his wry humor a dose of silliness, and a pinch of punchline, and it makes for a great experience.

I left this film feeling genuinely charmed. George Clooney helped in this regard, but he wasn't the only factor, because in the wrong hands, he comes off as a guy who tries too hard and ends up being off-putting. No, it was truly the whole film that charmed me... I came out feeling like I'd just spent these two hours having a conversation with a really friendly, interesting person in a bar, and they'd taken a personal interest in me and told me I was a really cool guy.

So three cheers for Wes Anderson. I'm a sucker for directors who can adapt to another effect (comedy) or another genre (childrens' stories) or another tone (whimsical), and Anderson does all three of these beautifully. Perhaps, given a sense of purpose and mission, his true strengths as a director come out. I've had mixed feelings about him before, but in this case, I can't find much of anything to criticize. Anderson and Dahl made it work just right.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Well-Resolved Movie Endings: An Ambiguity Intervention

There's been some talk of ambiguous endings over at CollegeHumor and Cinematical. The CollegeHumor video is good fun... the Cinematical article? Probably a bit divisive, since writer Jette criticizes the iconic open-ended conclusions of some truly canonical films. I mean, I know as well as the next guy... unless you're a Tai Chi master, sitting through 2001 is going to require some patience. However, if you're meditating along with 3 hours of Kubrick, or puzzling over all the cryptic cynicism of No Country for Old Men, or especially (and this one simply baffles me) going along with all the absurdity of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, then your mind should probably be a little loose and pliable by the end of the movie... enough that you can accept some unanswered questions.

Or maybe we're thinking about this backwards. Maybe it's not that they're inflicting ambiguity upon us (as Jette seems to assume) -- maybe we need to look at resolution itself, that polished up, nicely-packaged cereal box prize that comes with every popcorn flick, every childrens' movie, and everything involving Ron Howard. You know what that nugget is, and why studios are so intent on writing it into their pictures? It's because it's an addiction, and they need to keep feeding it to us so we keep the taste in our mouths.

Resolution as an addiction: here's the rationale. A widely-abused drug, generally speaking, is a way of evoking or enhancing something that we occasionally get anyway, just by being human... brain chemicals like dopamine, or stimulation of reward centers, or what have you. The drug is just something that's manufactured artificially, made to trigger those little pleasure-spots.

Now, in real life, there's something else we're always looking for... meaning, fairness, and resolution. Those things are surprisingly scarce in the real world, where things like cynicism, illogicality, and uncertainty are pretty much rampant. So most movies are filled with artifically-produced nuggets of meaning, like "good" and "evil," "karma," "justice," and "retribution." It's not that these things don't exist in real life... it's just that they're not very plentiful, and it sure feels good to get an extra hit once every week or two.

Addiction is just what happens when we condition ourselves to have more of these things than is naturally available. And "annoyance" is what results when we're looking for that weekly fix, and we end up with this movie where things are left up-in-the-air... a movie that pursues some less obvious intention, perhaps offering some sort of slower-acting analytical or thematic payoff, but that doesn't put out the goods we're always looking for.

When I see a truly unresolved movie... The Last Wave, or Blowup, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind... I get a pang of frustration at first. I didn't get to see anyone get rewarded, or punished, or targeted by divine justice. So it's a lot like real life, except maybe with better dialogue. However, once I have time to start reflecting on a film, I end up with this gradual-onset positive feeling, like you might get from successfully resisting a dependency, and feeling its grip on you loosen slightly.

I end up feeling like maybe there's stuff that's as messy and uncertain and pedestrian as the things that happen to me every day, but that it's still worth paying attention to, and even telling a story about.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Steve Tyler's new drama has reminded me how much I love Aerosmith

Did you ever have a favorite desk lamp that sat unused in a corner of the closet, and then one day, you jostled it and knocked it over, and it broke, and you were struck with a rush of sadness, even though you hadn't even plugged it in for, like, six years?

Or a favorite ice cream store that you hadn't been to since you were a small child, but one day you drove past it and happened to notice that it was closed because of the recession, and some small part of you was crushed by its disappearance, even though you're a vegan now and it was under new ownership anyway?

Or maybe you had a porno mag that you hid under a floorboard, and one day, many years later, you realized that you forgot about it when you moved, and you know it wasn't even that great, but you were like, "Oooh... but that was my very first Juggs."

Or maybe somebody assassinates Dan Quayle, and it's like, who cares? He's not even a public personality any more. But secretly, you mourn him, because you actually really liked him back when he was in office.


Well, I had an experience kind of like all four of those when I found out Steven Tyler left Aerosmith. Apparently, he fell off stage during a concert at Abu Dhabi, and declared himself pretty much dissociated from the band. They tried to pull it back together and start looking for a new singer, but there's something a little grotesque about the idea of Aerosmith getting a new vocalist at this point in the band's career. Steven Tyler was a true front-man, the face and body of the band, and even with him in place, they were already well on their way into obscurity. Even in the best of circumstances, a revival would have been difficult, and without Steve, it's pretty dead in the water, I think.

Although I'd love to be proven wrong. For serious. And now I'm hearing that he's not out of the band... it's just a little personal drama, he's mad, people aren't talking, he might take a few years off, but maybe he's sad that Aerosmith didn't call him after he left, and he's wondering, is Joe sad that he left? Do they even care? But he can't hang out with them again right away, cause things are still weird. But if he happens to be at one of their New York concerts, he'll stop by their dressing room and say hi, at least.

Anyway, I'd hardly have noticed that stuff... like, I wouldn't have noticed if Mick Jagger left the Stones... except that Aerosmith was probably my first musical loyalty. I fell in love with Get a Grip when I was young enough that my parents thought the lyrics were inappropriate for me. I then grew with the band, and I listened a little to Nine Lives and Big Ones, but I still remember the band by their 90's epics: Pump, Get a Grip, and Permanent Vacation. I have to say, Pump is my favorite album, and The Other Side is my favorite song. Janie's Got a Gun is by far my favorite video.

I eventually fell in love with the younger spirit of punk rock, but I always held onto Aerosmith as my vision of real rock and roll, with its lewd combination of cheap glamour and grizzly cynicism. Tyler was a fresh face in entertainment for a little while, but he was never a spritely youth... he's always had this weathered, self-destructive, crinkled old man inside his body, so much so that he seems like he's always been dying, but will never fully expire. Maybe you could say the same about the band, too, although it's easier to see it when you've got the howling banshee face and the skeleton body for reference.

I know this post has been a bit self-serving, but sometimes I just want to write a tribute, instead of an analysis. So here's to you, Aerosmith-as-Tyler-and-Perry, whether you're dying or just acting out some old-man drama. Thanks for making some news again.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

NYMag's David Edelstein and 'Precious': How to write a controversial review

As much as we'd like to think we can draw a line between racists and non-racists, most of us know, at this point in history, that racism is endemic to many of our basic perceptions and assumptions, and that racial tension and difference infects even well-intentioned communicative action and civil public relationships. Precious, Lee Daniels' recent massively-grossing film, makes some strong statements on racism, classism, sexism, and general normative judgment, and it was only natural that it would be the spark that ignited some heated public discourse on these topics.

I haven't seen the movie, but I've followed a little of the public discourse, and that's what I'm going to talk about right now. I'm going to try to keep this post brief and unassuming, because I'm fully aware that seeing the movie and reading the book it's based on are imperative to really diving into a discussion of representational identity politics. Please bear with me... I'm going to work hard to keep my commentary confined to the discourse itself, which is all I'm qualified to discuss right now.

A little outburst of controversy has sprung up around one particular review: David Edelstein's review of the film in New York Magazine, which prompted a firestorm of criticism in the comments, and which prompted him to follow up with the kind of blog post that reads as both an apology and a self-defense. A lot of the controversy seems to be rooted in the fact that Edelstein used some very provocative language to describe the film:

"She’s also sexually molested by her jealous, welfare-cheating, gross, and sedentary mother, although the genital fingering might seem preferable to the verbal and physical abuse. The book gives you quite a bludgeoning. I started to pull back from it in a flashback when the 12-year-old girl is in labor on the kitchen floor and her mother is kicking her in the face. "

"I’m not judging girls who look like Sidibe in life, but her image onscreen is jarring to the point of being transgressive, its only equivalent to be seen in John Waters’s pointedly outrageous carnivals. Her head is a balloon on the body of a zeppelin, her cheeks so inflated they squash her eyes into slits. Her expression is either surly or unreadable. Even with her voice-over narration, you’re meant to stare at her ebony face and see nothing. The movie is saying that she’s not an object, but the way that Sidibe is directed she becomes one."

The anger at Edelstein's review goes in all sorts of directions... detractors call him racist and prejudiced, they say that he sees the negatives in such relief only because he's sheltered from real hardships, and they think his lukewarm review of the film is inaccurate, because he fails to understand it on any deeper level. Edelstein retorts: the film was intended to make this negative impression, so he can't be blamed for describing it. And he does understand these issues, because he's dealt with them in his own background and experience. He spends a good deal of his response defending his opinion of the film.

However, this is missing the point, and failing to speak to the issue, which isn't the content of his discussion, but its form.

What Edelstein was trying to do in his review is clear... he was trying to evoke the movie's emotional and tonal content, to reproduce the ugliness that the film represents and critiques. That's the only reason to use such descriptive, provocative language to describe body type, appearance, and sexual abuse. However, Mr. Edelstein needs to realize that this isn't the role of a reviewer. The movie is carefully crafted to evoke these negative reactions, but with two hours of running time, it has the time to critique them and give the audience space to think about them.

You can't do that in a review, so you don't have the license to play on readers' emotions. Your job is to acknowledge and critique the spectacle: warn the audience that they'll be shocked at times, tell them that the images can be too heavy-handed, etc. It's a reviewer's job to have some critical distance, and to address multiple levels of merit and criticism... not to capture and reproduce the same emotions that the movie did. When you do this, your criticism will sound impulsive and ill-considered.

And this is what happened here, of course. A large part of the audience (and a bunch of readers of Jezebel) sensed Mr. Edelstein's negative reactions, but they didn't sense the necessary self-criticism that goes along with them, and that the film is trying to evoke. His sin is that he wrote a knee-jerk reaction, rather than an articulate critical assessment... not as bad as the sin of being racist, but still, a faux pas.

There were certain very measured, insightful critical points here: the observation that Sidibe's appearance is transgressive, and that the film may be too harsh in its Manichean portrayals of pure good and pure evil. When I see the film, I'm going to look for those things. If the whole review had kept that tone, it probably would have been better-received, even if the final opinion was the same.

There are other minor breaks in Mr. Edelstein's logic. For instance, he seemed to be saying that it was the abuse that really took him out of the movie ("I started to pull back from it in a flashback when the 12-year-old girl is in labor on the kitchen floor...") but his most graphic description is a description of the main character's appearance. His conscious emphasis is on the film's cruelty to its characters, but his subconscious emphasis seems to be on his aesthetic reactions to Sidibe's body. I'm not going to start attacking a reviewer's character without knowing them personally, but this point is at least worth thinking about.

The reaction was sudden and vicious, and I'm never one to take Internet forum posts at face value... but there's always a reason for it.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Chris Smith's 'Collapse': Finding the issues in the character you found in the issues

The American capitalist world is a highly specialized, systematic, profit-driven place. There's a structure, and we're expected to support it, along with all its assumptions and implications. Culture, religion, identity, history, innovation, and subversion are all accorded their roles, and there are cracks and bubbles for the outliers, where they can be confined without becoming dangerous enough to threaten anything essential.

Chris Smith is an emerging independent filmmaker, and he's taken an inadvertent interest in these outliers. His second feature documentary, Collapse, was just screened in New York, and it's moving around the country on a tour of a number of major cities. You should absolutely see it when it comes along. It's a an obsessively focused portrait of a man proposing a self-taught ideology that swims upstream against the status quo, and whether you read it as a document on pressing current issues, or a study of a man who lives more drama than most scripted characters, it's a compelling piece of film.

Smith was actually planning on making a fictional film about drug trafficking when he ran across Michael Ruppert, former police officer and self-described prophet of the collapsing capitalist paradigm. Ruppert sidetracked him, and he decided to capture two days worth of footage of Ruppert exposing the vast tapestry of political and economic interactions he had woven in his head. This mostly has to do with consumption, energy use, and natural resources as the dwindling substructure for a global economy of surplus. The footage, shot in the basement of an abandoned warehouse under bare interrogation-style light, makes up the substance of Collapse.

Collapse shares certain approaches with Smith's breakthrough 1999 feature. The film, entitled American Movie, is about Mark Borchardt, a Midwestern salt-of-the-earth filmmaker desperate to produce his first feature-length masterpiece. Boracht is another character right out of a script-writer's imagination... if Billy Bob Thornton and Wes Anderson had a love-child, it might look like Mark. However, Boracht's endearing commonness is the texture upon which his passion stands, and his honest, flawed humanness... worries about money, confusion about the opposite sex, managing relationships with his family and his best friend... is what makes it so incredible when he takes on the passionate filmmaker role that American Movie puts into relief.

Not so with Michael Ruppert. Ruppert always walks the line between prophet and crackpot, and our perspective on him consists almost entirely of his own face and words, the direct window into his obsessive beliefs. He never looks pedestrian... whether by Smith's effort or his own, he keeps an air of mystery and self-confidence throughout the portrayal. When Ruppert plucks his cigarette from his mouth, he becomes Chow Yun Fat in The Killer, a lingering adept who has made this warehouse cellar his domain.

I'd venture that this confidence... coming from a man who at times seems totally defeated and paranoid... is the result of years of hardening one's identity against ridicule and criticism. This is what comes about when your heart has dictated your direction, and no matter how difficult it's been, you can't be turned from that path by skeptics and nay-sayers. The confidence is also Ruppert's greatest asset... his ideas about the future of humanity are cataclysmic, and if they were given to me in a pamphlet, I'd make fun of it and then throw it out. However, from Ruppert's mouth, "the truth" takes on a certain gravity, and it compels people to listen.

According to Chris, the compulsion is strong enough that the vice-president of the Toronto film festival reversed the decision not to show the film, saying (in effect) I didn't like it at first, but I couldn't get the guy out of my head. This film acts on the principle that confidence can be convincing, entirely independent of its specific content.

Chris says that these outliers... idealists, unemployed ideologues, artistic and political dreamers... aren't a project for him. I'm excited to follow his vision, when he starts releasing narrative films, but I also wouldn't object to some more films that occupy this space, where the real American identity is at its fringes. I think he's a filmmaker to watch, and I think the subtle vision he's shown us in his films thus far is worth pursuing to the end of the earth and back.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

The New York / Paris / Moscow triad in New York, I Love You

Saw a film this weekend called New York, I Love You... younger cousin to Paris, je t'aime, a 2006 all-star amalgamation of short film vignettes. New York, I Love You featured shorts from a bunch of important directors, most of whom I don't know that well (though I think there are people who would say I should). They were a mixed bag, ranging from overly sentimental to very witty and concise. In any case, it felt fairly New Yorky, by and large... sometimes trying too hard, full of people you recognize, but sincere and accomodating enough that it's hard to begrudge it its flaws.

There's a little theory I've had floating around in my head for a while now, which is a theory on kinship of cities. It's the type of thing that I could turn into a thesis, if I was a very broad generalist of certain types of classical culture, and if I spent a few years hunting down the right studies, explorations, and travelogues. The theory is that there is an old Western world and a new Western world, and these are each represented by a triad of world cities. For the New Western World, I'd say it's Los Angeles, Tokyo, and London. I'll talk more about that some other time.

For the Old Western World, which I'm personally more attracted to, I'd say the triad consists of New York, Paris, and Moscow. And one of these vignettes is a clear illustration of this kinship.

The short piece called "Hotel Suite" on the film's website is about an aging opera singer who's clearly feeling spent and exhausted and lost in her nostalgia. She asks for a room on a higher floor (allegedly to escape the sounds of traffic) and is led there by a bellboy straight from the 40's. This bellboy clearly has a Russian accent, and he continuously discusses the singer's performances in Paris. This luminous setting is where three cities meet, connected by the thread of opera, one of the definitive art forms of classical Europe.

Along with opera, classic European culture is tied together by theater, haute couture fashion, and the romantic/melodramatic philosophy of art and culture. It's about the novelist, the New York and Moscow ballets, the Harlem Rennaissance, the symphony orchestra, the New York studio, the Paris loft, the Moscow Plaza... it's about New York and Moscow having the most distinctive public transportation systems in the world. It's about the culture of the University, Columbia, the Sorbonne, and Moscow State University. It's about two movies, both about finding love in the Old World.

There are other details that connect these cities in New York, I Love You... a film composer reading Dostoyevsky. A young Americanized Russian (Anton Yelchin) playing one of the key roles. Producer Emmanuel Benbihy was educated in Paris, where he learned the business of art. However, I'm not a film conspiracy theorist, and I acknowledge that these fade against the background of a fully international movie... a movie populated by Buddhists, Hasidic Jews, Chinese, and many others of uncertain ethnic origin.

At any rate, feel free to take a look at this little pastiche of a film. A lot of the reviewers may have gotten hung up on its claim to artistic merit, so they judged it a bit harshly, when it's actually more of a pop construction of cute little self-contained characterizations. For someone whose life is saturated with complex two-hour filmic odysseys, this kind of assemblage is refreshing and justifies $12.50 and a couple hours out of the weekend.