Archive for June 30, 2005

Behind the Curve Theater, with your host Sean Collins, part the second

June 30, 2005

(Technically “part the third” if you count my Garden State musings from last month, but that’s up to you.)

This installment’s film: Secretary, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal (sp?) and James Spader, directed by Steven Shainberg. The following is a rant copied-and-pasted from a message board, so if you’re expecting Pauline Kael, hit the library. But still, I think you’ll get something out of it.

Nearly every problem I had with this movie could be traced to the fact that the filmmakers couldn’t decide whether they wanted to do a broad Welcome to the Dollhouse/Edward Scissorhands-style parody of suburban mores or an incisive, naturalistic character piece like Closer or Naked or what-have-you. It’s almost like they decided not to decide, which led to a film that had no internal consistency or logic and gave completely disproportionate weight to certain images and scenes, thus throwing the balance of the movie out of whack like a washing machine with an off-balance load.

For example, you walk into this lawyer’s office (the lawyer is played by Spader), and it’s weirdsville in an ostentatious way. He’s got a permanent “secretary wanted” sign with lights around it like a vacancy/no vacancy sign at a motel; the entire place has been trashed; he’s got some weird blue and purple waterfall hothouse thing in his office; he’s acting like someone who just got finished having a nervous breakdown. So far, so okay–it’s like watered down version of Barton Fink, where Barton enters that terrible hotel, everything is impossibly old and decrepit, the staff are genuinely bizarre, and he meets his neighbor because the neighbor is constantly bawling loudly. But in Secretary they don’t stick with this tone at all. The best illustration of this is when she goes to his house, which is a regular house with a regular bed, and he’s jogging on a treadmill listening to a walkman for chrissake. Why would his office be so bizarre, such a caricature of a weird guy’s office, while his home is just “normal rich lawyer’s house”? It’s lazy; it’s sloppy. Same with Lee (Gyllenhaal’s character) herself: When we first meet her she’s leaving what appears to be a fairly realistic residential treatment facility–she describes the routine, she hugs her therapist (who’s a normal-looking guy) goodbye, etc. By the time she applies for a job–which she does with an airheaded glee and unbridled enthusiasm that, to put it mildly, does not exactly jibe with her “I can’t feel anything in real life so I cut myself to make the pain real” demeanor before then–she’s got this enormous Tim Burton purple raincoat on and is acting like, well, like a lazy Hollywood screenwriter’s idea of what a submissive should act like, not like what an ACTUAL person who’s going on an ACTUAL journey from self-mutilator to sexual submissive would act like. Fuck, man, I don’t know anyone who’d sit there and allow themselves to be grilled on personal matters the way the lawyer grilled her during their first meeting. And that’s to say nothing of the styleless stylization of the dream sequence, the cheap-shot kitsch of the laundromat-slash-diner, etc ad nauseum. If that’s how you wanna play this–it’s a fable, it’s a fairy tale, whatever–fine, but realize that you’re undoing any kind of sophisticated, reality-based character development you hinted at earlier.

And then there’s the supporting characters, who again are not characters at all but IDEAS of characters. Leslie Ann Warren’s mom character–I’m sorry, but am I the only one who’s sick to death of these offensive suburban-mom-zombie stereotypes in movies? You can tell from the MOMENT you see her that she’s not even going to APPROACH having three dimensions–she’s just going to be comically accomodating to Lee in order to mask how over-the-top messed up her home life is, blah blah blah, BORING! C’mon, man, you could have at least TRIED to make her an interesting character! The by-the-numbers domestic-abuse thing was fucking idiotic too. So were the soulless sister and her friends, chilling by the pool in their tacky outfits–oh, they couldn’t POSSIBLY fathom the complexity and depth of Lee’s relationship, she’s so BEYOND their petty bourgeois concecerns, blah blah blah.

Ditto poor Jeremy Davies, who’s given the thankless task of playing someone who does NOTHING wrong other than fall in love, and we’re supposed to feel superior to him because he’s not “hep” to the s&m “jive” that’s Lee & Spader’s “bag.” “Did I hurt you?” “(sigh) No.” Ha ha ha ha ha, you fuckin’ square, that’ll teach you to actually be concerned about the feelings of the woman you love! She’s too cool for you, you loser with your job at J.C. Penney! You’ve gotta learn to, like, actually FEEL things, and like cut through the BULLSHIT of SOCIETY and shit, and really truly LOVE, and DUH the way you do that is by allowing your employer to jerk off on your bare ass! I mean, GOD, Jeremy Davies, what a LOSER you are!


Maggie Ggyylleennhhaall also can’t act. Particularly when you put her up against Spader, who as my wife has been saying can do more with his eyes than most actors can do with an entire script. Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, has a face with the emotional communicativity of a soggy marshmallow. At any given moment–well, let’s take the immediate aftermath of the he-just-jerked-off-on-her scene by way of a for instance–you can’t tell WHAT the fuck we’re supposed to think she’s feeling. Is she happy, sad, turned on, angry, disappointed, disgusted, what? There’s NOTHING going on in that giant moonpie of a face, NOTHING. Although I do agree with the Missus that she has a cute speaking voice.

Spader’s character was a mess too, and no amount of fine acting on his part can redeem that. Is he obsessive-compulsive or suffering from mental exhaustion? Is he a dedicated and successful lawyer or a basket case who occasionally destroys his own office and hides from his ex-wife in the closet? His decisions to sometimes berate Lee, sometimes do B&D with her, sometimes act like an actual concerned human being, sometimes act like a zombie, sometimes act like a run-of-the-mill mean boss, sometimes act like a loving boyfriend–who can say why he makes any of them? Pouring a whole bunch of contradictory shit into a character doesn’t necessarily make him “complex”–it just makes your writing lazy.

I also don’t buy the theory advanced by some fans of the film that this dom/sub relationship is something the lawyer just stumbled into and he’s just as surprised as we are. A) The clear implication is that this has happened before with previous secretaries; B) He DOES happen to own various harnesses and an actual horse’s saddle, not to mention the bale of hay he has her kneel on as he saddles her up.

The score sucked. I hate saying this, because god knows Angelo Badalamenti gets a lot of points for his work on Twin Peaks. But he just draped all this lugubrious, melodramatic gunk over every scene. Yuck.

The movie also gave almost no thought to what characters it created and what it did with them. Why build this big mystery about the paralegal, and the previous secretary, and the domineering wife, only to have them show up and plead with Lee in the middle of the string of concerned parties during that idiotic desk/hunger strike scene at the end? At one point there’s an out-of-focus woman in the background while Lee is doing something or other. Who was she? Why was she there? Was nobody paying attention to these things? Any time you show something in a film, somebody has made a CHOICE to show that thing. You have a finite time and a finite space in cinema, and therefore everything that shows up on the screen is given a certain weight disproportionate to what it might have in real life. As Chekhov put it, “If you show a gun on the mantel in the first act, someone better fire it by the final act.” We saw plenty of guns that no one fired, or that turned out to be not guns but bananas or shoes or bulletin boards.

And that scene was beyond retarded. You’re telling me that nobody after Jeremy Davies–not mom, not dad, not sis, not brother-in-law, not spurned future parents-in-law whose heirloom wedding dress she’s been pissing in, not the police, not the EMTs, not her old counselor, NOBODY–decided “you know what? fuck this, she’s not handcuffed to the desk or anything, we’re taking her out of here?” Also, the lawyer’s sitting around his house the whole time. Nobody wanted to pay him a visit–not the cops, not the families, not the reporters, NOBODY? Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. It was beyond stupid.

How could you decorate a hall that your clients walk up and down all the time with those typo-circled letters and the lingerie glamour shot Lee had taken for the lawyer? I think maybe somebody might have found that a little unusual.

Alright, we get it, you liked the pool scene from The Graduate! You also liked the running-from-the-wedding scene! You also liked the May-December romance angle! You also liked the plastic suburbanites! Whoop-dee-doo!

And that final shot of her staring at the audience was so condescending and patronizing it made my hair hurt. It’s supposed be a challenge to us boozhwah squares in the audience–you think I’m weird, but look, I live in YOUR neighborhood, I’m a complete and fulfilled person, who are you to judge, blah blah fucking blah. But the thing is, the only people who are going to see a movie like this is people who ALREADY THINK all those things about the rest of America. So what reads on the surface as a challenging stare is really just a way to get the audience to feel smug and superior about the Wal-Mart-shopping SUV-driving missionary-position-using proles. How tedious.

Meanwhile, I’m not sure a deeply dysfunctional sexual relationship predicated on an employer taking advantage of his employee’s deep-rooted self-destructive psychological problems makes for the great love story we’re supposed to think this is, thank you very much. When you get right down to it, this is a guy who allowed this woman to sit in place for three days without eating or drinking, going to the bathroom on herself (I’d say “and freaking out her family” but they react to it like it’s the teddy-bear picnic, because yeah, THAT makes sense, that’s exactly how the family of an institutionalized cutter would react if she went on a hunger strike) rather than act. This doesn’t make me think “wow, look how tough it is for him to loooove! How sweet!”, it makes me think “grow the fuck up, douchebag.” There’s nothing romantic about destructive behavior. At least Closer recognized this. This movie is the anti-Closer. It’s juvenalia in sophisticate drag.

All in all, this movie was not nearly as smart as it quite obviously thought it was. To quote Roger Ebert, I hated, hated, hated this movie.


Ahhhh, I feel much better. Next up, if you’re very quiet about it: Batman Begins…?

Behind the Curve Theater, with your host Sean Collins

June 28, 2005

Just got around to seeing Mike Nichols’s film Closer this weekend, and I liked it quite a bit. I generally enjoy films about lovely people behaving abominably toward one another–it’s just sort of my aesthetic. (This is why Eyes Wide Shut is my favorite Kubrick film, and why I love Velvet Goldmine, for example.) The behavior in this film was truly ghastly, on an almost Mike-Leigh’s-Naked level. (Those people were poor and ugly rather than rich and gorgeous, but the similarities outweigh the differences, I think.)

Some quick, discombobulated thoughts:

1) Natalie Portman was terrific, a million times better than her hideous tic-fest in Garden State. She was like a different actress here. Able to use her weird, showy, aren’t-I-sexy-in-a-barely-legal-way mannerisms rather than feebly attempting to hide them, she created a character with more hooks than a box of tackle. Fine work.

2) Clive Owen was also very good, certainly one of the most involving and believable bastards in recent cinematic memory. What I like about Owen is that he truly looks like he could and would kill somebody at any time. If he had murdered any of the film’s three other characters I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash.

3) Play-to-film adaptations are often quite dull to look at, with utilitarian scoring and cinematography; Nichols, to his great credit, made several choices (those voluptuous zooms!) that resonated in ways an all-business translation wouldn’t have done. Kudos too for the song selection in the strip-club scene; have there ever been such appropriate filmic usage of the Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up” and the Smiths’ “How Soon is Now?”?

4) I found the film’s faith in the audience’s ability to make those chronological jumps forward in time very refreshing. Devout followers of my wildly influential critical oeuvre will note that this is something I do often think about in the context of comics–Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar and Poison River pull a similar trick off with aplomb, for example, while brother Jaime’s trust in his audience to play along with this ploy in Locas is belied by the relative psychological doughiness of his characters. Playwright and screenwriter Patrick Marber deploys a handful of props and throwaway lines (cigarettes, pet names, etc.) and sleight-of-hand-style builds complex–yet easily traceable–character arcs out of them.

5) I was particularly struck by the evolution of Jude Law’s character, who is transformed from befuddled obituarist to consummate preening asshole in the year that elapses offscreen between the film’s first and second sequences. Perhaps Marber and Nichols wanted to test the audience early: “Okay, let’s see if they roll with this!” But it works, largely because of the unspoken monkeywrench it throws into a potentially pat understanding of the dynamic between the characters–namely, it seems like a year with Natalie Portman’s Alice has turned Law’s Dan into a grade-A cocksucker. Law, whose charm is both more sincere and more sinister than that of, say, Hugh Grant (at least outside of Maurice), makes both halves convincing even as he leaves it up to the viewer to put the two together.

6) The strip-club scene was pretty hot. So, for that matter, was Julia Roberts’s under-duress litany of sexual positions and practices indulged in by her (well, Anna) and Dan. Cf. Pretty Woman, which for all its wince-inducing romanticization of prostitution didn’t dare actually conjure up images of its leading lady actually fucking somebody. And yes, both scenes were excruciatingly uncomfortable to watch, and no, that didn’t lessen the eroticism.

7) The film worked for me because I thought it cast a fairly pitiless eye on the lengths to which people will go in order to justify their own terrible and (dare I say it?) immoral behavior. I was reminded a lot of shows like The Real World, where, under the cover of “finding themselves” and “being free to fully experience this opportunity” and innumerable other iterations of feel-good bullshit, people cheat on their girl/boyfriends left right and center, almost without compunction, and then act all wounded and shit when they discover that people (and perhaps themselves) are unhappy with their behavior. No shit, Sherlock. Sexual exploration and expression has become infantilized–me me me, gimme gimme gimme, more more more. I really don’t have a problem with people having sex with whoever they want whenever they want, provided it’s consensual AND INFORMED. If your sex life is based on a lie of whatever sort, it will hurt not just the other people, but (unless you’re a true sociopath) you. That, I thought, was the message of this movie. So, well done.

A propos of nothing

June 28, 2005

I was hunting the Internet for a picture of Father Karras’s mother on Regan’s bed during the climax of The Exorcist–and I came up empty*, sad to say–when I remembered something that really, really bothered me about the recent re-cut, expanded, whatever editions of the film. I actually really like all the extra scenes they added in (the crab walk!), and I recall enjoying most of the extra background images and subliminal geegaws too.

But SHEESH! Did they ever screw up the way they used this image:

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I don’t think I’ve ever been as scared by a single image in a film as I was of that split-second flash during Father Karras’s dream sequence. From out of nowhere, totally silent, completely disorienting, absolutely terrifying. I completely lost my shit–and then I rewound the tape and watched it over again, simply to confirm my fear that something that freaking scary could actually exist.

But in “The Version You’ve Never Seen,” the filmmakers add in an appearance (a longer and therefore less effectively what-the-fuck? appearance at that) of that demon face BEFORE the dream sequence, in a new Regan-in-a-doctor’s-office scene right after the doc asks Regan how she feels. (FLASH! Then back to Regan: “I don’t feel anything.”) Is it me, or did this earlier, weaker placement almost completely strip the terrifying power of that image away?

* I did, however, come across the site Terror Trap, which I’m sure all you horror-savvy kids are familiar with already, but permit me to indulge my thrill of discovery.

Missing Inaction

June 23, 2005

What do you make of that M.I.A. record? For my money it’s got three good songs (the two singles (“Galang” and “Sunshowers”) and “Hombre”), and the rest is fair-to-middling dancehall with a pretty, “exotic” singer who makes Williamsburg-dwelling record critics named Josh or Adam feel like they’re Simon LeBon in the video for “Hungry Like the Wolf.”

These are their stories

June 20, 2005

Horror cropped up in an unexpected place for me last night, specifically in a TiVo’d episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent that I just got around to watching. To my surprise and delight the entire episode played like an extended tribute to J-horror.

Titled “The View from Up Here” (written by Jim Starling from a story by Starling & series co-creator Rene Balcer and directed by Alex Chapple), the ep revolved around the murder of a tenant in a hip Manhattan high-rise. The killing may or may not be related to a dispute between the tenants and the building’s main contractor, who’s allowing the ostensibly world-class post-modern apartments to fall into disrepair in order to collect bribes to finish the work he’d already been paid to do. But to my eyes the plot was all but incidental; the real attraction of the episode was the atmosphere of dread, decay, and wrongness created by the filmmakers, using the tools that J-horror and its Western analogues and acolytes have provided to makers of creepy pop culture.

The usual information-technology anxiety is present: Security cameras and monitors record everything; digital cameras materialize with impossible pictures taken by phantom photographers stored within them; a pager is used to receive messages from beyond; night-vision technology casts its green light over illicit goings-on; notably, a pair of binoculars being used to spy/peep is broken during the murder that kicks off the mystery. (I’m actually a little bit surprised that computers and the Internet didn’t figure in at some point.) Shades of The Ring, Blair Witch, and Dionaea House abound.

The “evil building” trope is also deployed; in fact, it’s central to the plot, as the tenants’ debate as to whether to bribe the contractor, and moreover a mentally disabled character’s belief that the building itself has succumbed to a mystical “plague” that presages a repeat of a 9/11-level atrocity, provide possible motives for the murder. But the filmmakers play around in this particular sandbox far too much for it to be mere plot-moving. In the episode’s opening sequence, bizarre and disorienting as is the series’ trademark, mirrors get fogged up for no apparent reason, steam erupts from strange places like wooden floorboards, the building’s concrete walls dissolve into sticky white powder, a mystery hole appears in a penthouse window; later in the episode, disembodied voices echo eerily in a hidden crawlspace connected to every apartment in the building by a series of ladders and trap doors; rain pours down the inside of a window. Dark Water, House of Leaves, and (again) Dionaea House fans would hardly be disappointed.

I was extremely tickled at how specific some of the homages got: The optical-illusionism of the scene in The Ring where Naomi Watts pauses an image of a fly on a monitor, then reaches out and touches it only to find that it’s now outside the TV, is neatly replicated by the scene in which the retarded housekeeper touches the rainy windowpane and discovers that the water is pouring down her hand. The most explicit reference is a hidden-camera night-vision shot of guest star Adam Goldberg climbing up through the darkness of a crawlspace in a scene that couldn’t look more like Samara scaling the walls of her well in The Ring and The Ring 2 unless he suddenly grew a head of long black hair.

Needless to say, the episode ends up faithful to the could-be-true-crime roots of the Law & Order franchise, and the potentially uncanny roots of the various phenomena experienced are duly explained away (though the writers do insert a commentary to the effect that some people are indeed tuned into “different wavelengths,” so to speak). Also, perhaps sensing that the weirdness of the episode was pushing the envelope pretty hard, the filmmakers had star Vincent D’Onofrio tone down his famously quirky performance as Det. Bobby Goren; his not-quite-rational mannerisms and odd leaps of intuitive logic played as small a role in the solving of this case as I’ve ever seen them play. But as a study of the uncanny in its classic German sense–unheimlich, meaning literally un-home-like–“The View from Up Here” was quite a sight to behold.

Three items of note

June 19, 2005

An extremely comprehensive chronicle of the rise and fall of trip-hop’s prodigal son, Tricky, by Scott McKeating of Stylus Magazine.

An extremely comprehensive examination of the Streets’ 2004 concept album A Grand Don’t Come for Free, by Marcello Carlin of the apparently defunct blog the Naked Maja.

A day in the life at a residential treatment facility for eating disorders, by my wife.

Fascinating thing, this Internet of ours.

Dawn again

June 18, 2005

Bill Sherman, one of my most very favoritest pop-culture bloggers in the world, has finally succumbed to the plague and seen Zak Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead; his astute-as-always take on the film can be found here. Bill’s review reminds me of one of the film’s great strengths: I think the beauty of the political undertones in this film is that they tap into paranoia period, rather than paranoia of a particular partisan stripe. The televangelist, Sheriff Savini, and the head security guard who says “What did I tell ya–America always sorts its shit out” are figures of fun-slash-fear for the blue-state audience, while the impotent news media, the once-a-criminal-always-a-criminal character, and the prominent presence of Islam in the opening credit sequence under Johnny Cash’s Christian armageddonmongering are triggers for the conservatively inclined. And I think that even on a more general level, the metaphor of hordes of zombie attackers can appeal to you whether you think the biggest threat to this country is the Bush Junta or the Islamofascists. As I’ve said before, the threat of violence from people who were once your neighbors cuts both ways.

I’ll be curious to see what political messages Romero puts into his own zombie movie next week…

Two new albums

June 17, 2005

The first thing that struck me about the new Coldplay album, X&Y, is how loaded it is with references-cum-homages to other, older bands. I mean, it’s apparent from the very first notes’ Also Sprach Zarathustra swipe (provided one counts Richard Strauss as a band). Then there’s the nod to the “something’s got a hold on me” part of the Velvet Underground’s “New Age” (on “What If”), the duly attributed melodic lift from Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love” (on “Talk”), a self-plagiarizing “Clocks” all-but-remake of the sort that would make Saul Zaentz smile knowingly to himself (the much-commented-upon “Speed of Sound”), and the Mother of All Borrowing Types, a Beatles swipe, specifically the circling guitar crunch of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” (on “Twisted Logic,” which even obliquely references that sonic motion in its title).

The next thing that struck me is that I actually appreciated all these little salutes. “Talk” in particular reminded me why “Computer Love” has always been my favorite Kraftwerk song. The band takes that timidly sweet keyboard line, translates it to guitar, and suspends it in the space of the arenas it will surely be rocking throughout the summer; near the end of the song they take the strangely sinister river of bass that’s always been present beneath the surface of that melody and push it through the low end until it’s a roiling seething sea.

It’s that combination of space-rock and arena-rock sonics that gave me my third impression of the album, which is that I like it. I don’t think it’s as immediately impressive as either of the band’s first two albums–particularly their sophomore effort A Rush of Blood to the Head, which was really admirable in the way it refused to rest on the laurels of the “Radiohead’s less weird kid brother” reputation garnered by the band’s debut. There were a lot of sounds and songs on Rush that you hadn’t heard from Coldplay before, if you can remember–they’d never done a song like “Clocks” or “Politik” in their vocabulary prior to that, you know. X&Y is more a game of refinement and bigger-better-ism than one of staking out new sounds. (The exception is the insistent acoustic guitar and suddenly stepped-up vocal deliver of the hidden track, “Kingdom Come.”) Which is fine, really, if you’re refining and expanding upon such an impressive foundation. Personally I think the ultra-produced production actually works quite well, incidentally, and I say that as someone who complains long and loud about overproduction in many other cases.

The only thing that bothers is an increasingly apparent lack of lyrical sophistication. “Talk,” for example, is nearly undone by the repeated injunction “Let’s talk, let’s talk” at the song’s conclusion. Quite frankly, it’s like something you’d expect from one of Phil Collins & Genesis’s more earnest mid-’80s efforts. And there’s oodles and oodles of “when you think you’re sinking, I’ll be your life jacket” sentiment draped here there and everywhere. At times I believe that Coldplay, as much as everyone likes them now, will be regarded in much the same way in 10 or 20 years as Genesis and the like is now. Some future Bret Easton Ellis will have some future American Psycho pen a chapter singing the band’s praises in some future satire of aughtie excess and emptiness. In no small part this is due to lead singer Chris Martin’s public persona as a starlet-marrying, stupid-baby-naming, cause-embracing poor man’s Bono. I will also admit that I managed to listen to the whole album at least once without a single song registering as more than background music (to be fair, I was pretty busy at the time). That said, I’m not convinced any of these criticisms are truly valid–at the least, a Phil-esque fate is certainly not unavoidable. A dip into a more self-effacing Achtung Baby/Zooropa/Pop mode might help the band’s fortunes immeasurably, though I’m sure as the second-biggest band in the world they’re probably pretty happy with where they are.


Much more of an immediate knockout punch, and I mean a teeth-flying-out-your-mouth, serious-concussion, career-ending knockout, is Get Behind Me Satan by the White Stripes. Everything that all the critics said about Elephant, Satan‘s predecessor? They were right. They were just one album too early. Good God, this is sophisticated, weird, supremely confident music making.

For starters, there’s almost no guitar. At all. The most notable exception is the album’s lead track and lead single, “Blue Orchid,” which I’ve talked about before. It’s a sinister ass-shaker with a full-sounding hook that combines the best qualities of a New Wave synth riff and a full-on Tony Iommi onslaught. But perhaps the most fitting point of reference is Led Zeppelin: Just as Zep started off their largely acoustic album III with “Immigrant Song,” the single most aggressive metal track in their catalog, so too do the White Stripes use the borderline-industrial “Blue Orchid” to launch an LP full of murky piano and percussion exercises. It’s pretty damn brilliant is what it is, and the moment that “Blue Orchid”‘s relentless riffery (punctuated by one of the all-time great “woo woo!”s in rock history) gives way to the mysterious marimba (!) of “The Nurse,” you know you’re in for something special.

Satan is indeed a special record, a ghostly transmission from the submerged Appalachia of Deliverance, inspiring thoughts of Zeppelin III, Physical Graffiti, side three of Exile on Main Street. It sounds like it was recorded in hermetically sealed conditions by a band with absolutely no interest in listening to or following what any of its contemporaries in any medium were up to. Whatever production tricks were employed, it gives the album a vastly more unified, “this is this album” feel than either of the Stripes’ previous post-stardom efforts. There’s a pair of funk-soul rockers (“My Doorbell” and “The Denial Twist”) that will get your head nodding as surely as a either a new Neptunes single or an old Metallica track. The bluegrass song “Little Ghost,” besides being really funny, is also entirely sincere–I could easily imagine my wife’s West Virginian ancestors playing it on the porch a few generations ago. “Forever for Her (Means Nothing for Me)” and “White Moon” are a couple of slow, methodical, haunting ballads that get their rough-hewn, seemingly unfinished hooks in and simply won’t let go until their three or four minutes are up. “Instinct Blues” actually takes the hoary old blues cliches that so bothered me in Elephant‘s “Ball and Biscuit” and makes a real feedbacky corker of ’em. Jack and Meg White’s strange relationship is mentioned more directly than ever before on at least two songs (the Meg-sung interlude “Passive Manipulation” and “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet),” which simply adds to the strange, hypnotic “where are these cats at, anyway?” vibe. “Take, Take, Take,” a perfectly good strutter of a tune, suddenly slams on the brakes, hits the piano and the timpani, and demands to be listened to. “As Ugly as I Seem” is a folk song worthy of Nick Drake–or of Jimmy Page & Robert Plant’s efforts in that direction. Speaking of Zeppelin (it’s impossible not to with this record, and I assure you that that’s a VERY high compliment coming from this writer), “Red Rain” surgically removes the guitar squalls and solos of “In My Time of Dying,” places them in suspended animation, and stretches them across four minutes of fury–right on top of the gentle “As Ugly,” might I add, and right before the timeless, flawless, lyrically fascinating country piano ballad “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet),” which closes the album and God, does it also make you wish record companies released songs like these as singles.

Jesus–to think I almost didn’t buy this record!

This is where Jack and Meg White earn the place in music that critics have been so eager to award them. Album of the year so far, easily.

Scary stories

June 16, 2005



June 13, 2005

Amy’s Hayden Christensen fixation gave me an excuse to finally watch Shattered Glass last night. I sure am glad I did: It’s one of the most fascinating cinematic examinations of sociopathy I’ve ever seen, and trust me, I’ve seen a lot of cinematic examinations of sociopathy.

The film recounts the true story (perhaps the only true story with which its main character was ever associated) of Stephen Glass, a wunderkind writer and associate editor at The New Republic whose almost superhuman solicitousness toward his friends and colleagues enabled him to mask the fact that he was fabricating story after story out of whole cloth. That’s really the most striking aspect of the film (aside from Christensen’s performance, about which more later): These articles were chock-a-block full of just the most enormous whoppers you could possibly imagine. Glass didn’t just fudge quotes, rely on dubious information, or abuse anonymous sourcing–he was just making shit up, left right and center. People, places, organizations, documents, events, all 100% hot air. And this wasn’t even done in support of something resembling a real story somewhere down deep–Many of his stories didn’t even contain a kernel of truth at the center at all. The lying is so wide, deep, and bold that even as a well-informed viewer who knows exactly what’s going to happen in the movie, there’s still a shock factor at play: “Noooo. It can’t be!”

That’s just the thing: It can’t be, or at the very least it damn well shouldn’t have been. Glass was a master at gaming his magazine’s fact-checking system, one that he apparently helped set up and operate during his early days at TNR. Essentially, much of the fact-checking consisted of comparing a draft of a piece against the piece’s author’s notes; in a display of pretty stunning credulity considering the line of work of the people involved, no one imagined that those notes themselves could be miniature mockumentaries. However, this doesn’t excuse, or even explain, how some of Glass’s bullroar got published. It’s one thing to take a reporter’s word for it when it comes to the existence of a quote, or even a source; but when he’s inventing bills that are supposedly being debated in over 20 state legislatures, or “major” Silicon Valley firms that nevertheless have the kind of rudimentary websites that students are required to code up for introductory electrical engineering courses in college–well, shit, people, how ’bout making some damn phone calls, or using Yahoo, or applying even an iota of common sense? And it’s not just TNR that Glass punked; Glass was probably doubling his salary from freelance work at that time, so maybe a dozen other outlets were suckered as well. Whatever weakness in the system he exploited, it was endemic.

The film itself is as successful as it is thanks to a pair of very strong performances from its antagonistic leads. The much-maligned Christensen is a doozy as Glass, playing him as an abscess of both need and breathtaking duplicity who inspires protective, almost parental instincts in nearly everyone around him even though he’s rocketing past them toward fame and fortune. He reminded me of another out-of-nowhere knockout performance, that of Mark Wahlberg as Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights, especially toward the final third of that film. Christensen’s Glass is basically a big baby, with all the moral development of a toddler. He still sees the entire world exclusively in terms of how it affects him. He’s learned how he should act to please those he needs to please, how to be seen as a good boy; he knows how to hide actions that would upset that image, hide them so well that the thought of him doing such things is inconceivable to those around him; but he does it all so that he can do and get exactly what he wants. And one he’s caught, he simply can’t stop play-acting; one terrific moment shows Glass loitering in the TNR office–even begging his now-ex-boss to watch over him lest he off himself–long after both the boss and we the viewers have assumed he’s exited the building for good. Watching Christensen unravel over the course of the film is like watching a particularly spoiled little brat get caught and punished for doing something malicious–it’s satisfying, deeply so in fact, but at the same time extremely unpleasant. It’s good that the punishment happened, but there’s just something wrong with having to watch it happen at all.

The other terrific turn is from Peter Sarsgaard, who plays Glass’s editor Chuck Lane. Lane was apparently an unpopular figure at TNR, taking over for the adored, freshly fired Michael Kelly without much support from his colleagues; circumstance pitted him against Glass, who to hear tell from those who knew him was the most popular guy at the magazine. Every iota of this sense of impotence (inferority even) finds its way into Sarsgaard’s magnificently muted facial expressions, as disbelief, dread, and rage fight a three-way battle as Lane uncovers the truth. Before Lane ascends to the editorship of the magazine, there’s a wonderful moment early on when, asked to discuss the decidedly dry article he’s working on right after a tour-de-force, almost burlesque pitch from Glass on yet another absurdly killer story, can only chuckle helplessly, “That’s a tough act to follow…heh heh…uh…a really tough act…ha ha.” Sarsgaard plays it perfectly, and his vindication (though hit on a touch too heavily in the film’s final scene) is wonderful to watch, especially because his Lane doesn’t seem to desire vindication at all–showing only a quietly furious desire to get to the bottom of the mess he’s found himself in.

A few other thoughts:

1) I found it amusing that they’d occasionally cut to scenes of Lane returning home to his wife and baby after a hard day’s work. This is the hallmark of the “dogged investigator on the trail of master criminal” genre–I’ve seen it in films as wide-ranging as The Untouchables and Citizen X–but it’s still funny to see it in a movie that’s not about a G-man working to bring down a mob kingpin or a forensic investigator hunting for a serial killer, but an editor trying to fact-check one of his writers.

2) There are some really intriguing games being played here with identity. Judging from the cursory research I’ve done and the 60 Minutes interview with some of the principals that’s included as a special feature on the DVD, most of the major players in this scandal were, in real life, Jewish; in the film, they’re goyischized almost to a man. Glass is played by a man whose last name is Christensen, and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what a poster boy for WASPy beauty he is; ditto Glass’s co-worker and close friend Hanna Rosin, an Israeli-born brunette who in the movie is played by a very blonde Chloe Sevigny and is named Caitlin (!). I haven’t seen anything that leads me to believe that these and other characters aren’t being portrayed realistically, but given the film’s preoccupation with how facts “need” to be glamorized to become good stories, it’s funny to watch the usual Hollywoodification at work here.

3) Another identity issue: Is he or isn’t he? There’s a scene in which Glass doth protest too much about how people think he’s gay, said protest occasioned by a meeting with another journalist who, in Glass’s own words, ended up with his tongue down Glass’s throat. That he’s saying this to a manque of TNR‘s Jonathan Chait, who, for the purposes of the film, has been transformed into a young woman, makes it doubly interesting. The movie continuously plays up angles between Glass, Sevigny’s Caitlin, and Melanie Lynskey (still working after Heavenly Creatures! Alright!)’s Chait-esque character that are potentially sexual or romantic, or perhaps incestuous is the right word; in these cases, and in the case of the adoring female high-school journalists who hang on Glass’s every word when he comes to lecture their class on his career, the filmmakers clearly see sex and gender as an issue. Now if I had to make a snap judgement based on Glass’s 60 Minutes interview I’d say he was gay, but if he is he’s not saying; indeed, in his thinly veiled autobiographical novel The Fabulist, he apparently is quite the ladies’ man. What gives? Is it just another level on which, to quote Roxy Music, “what’s real and make-believe” are duking it out for supremacy?

4) Having spent a good deal of time recently immersed in works of fiction that purport to be non-fiction (though obviously with a lot more transparency than Glass’s stuff, and with an entirely different motive), it’s been an odd and somewhat thrilling experience to watch a film that’s a slightly fictionalized account of a non-fictional scandal involving fiction in the guise of non-fiction. Thanks to the Internet, you can still see the very internet-journalism pieces that broke the story (written by Steve Zahn and Rosario Dawson, in the film at least), which itself creates a mental echo with the bogus website Glass created to shore up one of his fabrications. Hall of mirrors, rabbit hole, et cetera.

5) Small moment I liked: Zahn and Dawson fighting over who gets the byline for the article exposing the fraud perpetrated by a writer crazed with the notion of getting his byline out there. Sharp.

6) Please resist the temptation to name your essay about Stephen Glass “Glass Houses.” Trust me–it’s been done.

A fine film. Rent it.

Postscript: I recently ordered a copy of the movie Dahmer, which I think dovetails nicely with this movie. Perhaps I’ll write about that sometime soon.

Crazy diamonds

June 12, 2005

Pink Floyd Reuniting for Live 8

Meaning Gilmour, Wright, Mason, and Waters.

Rock and effin roll.

The new White Stripes song

June 6, 2005

I just heard “Blue Orchid” today. Holey smokes! Where’d that come from? AWESOME, and much better than the overrated roots-rock affectations of Elephant, lots of which I just didn’t get. (How could anyone voluntarily listen to “Ball & Biscuit” more than once?)

You know what this new song is actually a lot like? Another two-person outfit: Death From Above 1979. (That’s a compliment.) And in a weird way it will fit into a rock-radio landscape saturated with the Killers and the Bravery (and even the new nine inch nails) in a way that your old-model White Stripes wouldn’t.

Now I’m gonna have to get this record, aren’t I?

Personal to the Warner Bros. publicity department

June 6, 2005

That’s okay–I didn’t wanna go to your stinking advance screening of Batman Begins tonight anyway!!!!

I’m ready to duck, I’m ready to dive, I’m ready to say I’m glad to be alive

June 2, 2005

Submitted for your approval: a bunch of mp3s designed to make ya break ya shake ya ass.

“Black and White Town,” by Doves

I’ve gone on and on about this gorgeously technicolor “Heat Wave” homage in the past, but I’m telling you, you’ve really got to hear that insistent piano-drums combo and that roll-down-the-windows guitar solo to understand what I’m talking about. Best rock song of 2005 so far, and it’d take a real doozy to topple it.

“only,” by nine inch nails

You can tell how much I still love nine inch nails by the fact that they’re the only people in the world for whom I’ll indulge a no-caps name, aside from e.e. cummings. (Bell Hooks, Art Spiegelman, I’m hitting the goddamn shift button!) This is the most interesting song from the new album with teeth, since (aside from the chorus) it’s the least stereotypically NIN. A great bassline, kinky synths, and a deadpan talking-blues lyrical sense of humor that is a rare thing indeed for Mr. Reznor these days. And oh yeah, it’s FONKY.

“David,” by Gus Gus

There are times when I really miss the more intellectually stimulating Gus Gus songs of old. Listening to this ecstatic, super-sexy house tune is not one of those times. “I still have last night in my body” is one of those lines you’d happily kneecap someone to have thought up yourself. And again, synths. I love synths.

“Out of Touch,” Uniting Nations

Apparently looping a couple of lines from an ’80s hit and basing a whole track around that is all the rage in house music circles these days. Holy shit, that is such an awesome thing to do. If you’re gonna have a formula, let it be a rad formula, you know? This example of this particular moment in music features Hall & Oates playing off a massive four-on-the-floor beat in syncopated splendor. I love it. The video is pretty hot stuff too, in a refreshingly playful and non-nasty way that eventually involves a skinny Euro dude getting the comeuppance skinny Euro dudes tend to deserve. Extra points to the group for getting the idea for the song after hearing the H&O original while playing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

“Call on Me,” by Eric Prydz

I put this one after “Out of Touch,” even though this track is widely cited as preparing the way for the that one, because I’m saving the best for last. And folks, this is the best. Seriously, the. Best. Another ’80s loop, this one from Steve Winwood’s “Valerie.” Now, I never thought I’d be singing the praises of anything involving Steve Winwood that didn’t also involve the words “Spencer,” “Davis,” or “Group,” but here we are. This shit-eating grin in song form so impressed Winwood when he heard a white label of it that he actually contacted DJ Eric Prydz and volunteered to re-record the sampled vocals specifically for this track. And as if this sunburst of a song wasn’t good enough, there’s an accompanying music video involving an ’80s-style Perfect/”Physical” aerobics class that is as joyously, gob-smackingly, unabashedly smutty as anything I’ve seen since the Frankie Goes to Hollywood sequence in Brian DePalma’s Body Double. There’s even another skinny Euro dude, but this one has a genuinely happy ending for all involved. Also, legwarmers, and lots of ’em. Go and watch, provided you are not at work or are but don’t give a rat’s ass. (They’ll ask you for registration information–try entering whatever you find here. Thanks,!) But mainly download the song. God, is it great.

(One final note: There are many people out there who might find the last few tracks to be maddeningly repetitive junk. So if you see any of them, tell the suckers I said ‘Dance!’)

Dawn again

June 1, 2005

For the “how’d I overlook this?” file: blogger and gameswriter Bruce Baugh’s wonderfully in-depth review of Zak Snyder’s fantastic Dawn of the Dead remake, written last November. Go ye and read, zombielovers. And while you’re at it check out Bruce’s two new(ish) blogs, now that his old one’s long defunct.

It had to happen eventually

June 1, 2005

I just wish I was the guy responsible. From the makers of Tom the Dog, I give you Zombie Eat Brains. It’s a zombieblog–nothin’ new, that–but with a difference.

It’s written by a zombie.