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in the Home of the Brave.

“There’s no such thing as love, only proof of love.”
– Jean Cocteau

 

Is there such a thing as cinema? Do the images that flicker for us on that big screen—paired with foley effects, synced dialogue, and original scoring—compose something tangible and identifiable? Or is it all an illusion; a reproduction of a dream (that most intangible and abstract concoction of all)? More pressingly: is there still a place for cinema, in the age of social media (with its foremost byproducts: outrage and attention deficits), online dating, and reality TV presidents?

It’s a question that has been swirling around the toilet bowl of movie nerd-dom for several years now—fielded primarily by a circuit of twenty-something film school brats (I use the term endearingly; they all appear to be gainfully employed at IndieWire now, so it would seem they’ve landed on their feet), adjusting their glasses as they alternately defend the politics of streamable distribution formats, or decry the disappearance of that communal experience once known as going to the movies. As far as this writer is concerned, the debate can be rendered irrelevant with a simple understanding that where there is a will, there is a way; and regardless of the production/distribution methodology, we have a century-old addiction to recreating our dreams for projection on the big screen. This is unlikely to disappear outright—particularly if one considers that dreams are in greater demand than ever.

Last year saw the demise of many socio-cultural norms and institutions. It also bore witness to some awe-inspiring new works by our country’s foremost dream-makers, and the emergence of some powerful new voices in American cinema. In the former category, no achievement can match the awesome feat of Mr. David Lynch—whose 18-hour-long masterclass in film-making (Twin Peaks: The Return) has left viewers throughout the world kneeling in the dust of its tailspin; bowing to the shape of its receding genius. In addition to Lynch’s crowning achievement, there were strong showings from other established auteurs, including Paul Thomas Anderson, Noah Baumbach, and Todd Haynes. We were served a generous helping of the profoundly twisted, Hitchcockian meticulousness practiced by David Fincher (whose original miniseries, Mindhunter, gives long-form life to the investigative-cum-philosophical theorism of Se7en and Zodiac); we were also granted a fresh dose from the perceptive, loving, and quintessentially American gaze of Richard Linklater. In the newcomer category, there was a powerful entry from Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi (Chavela); a directorial debut by the fabulously deadpan Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird); and a wobbly but noteworthy second feature by Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats). There was also an imperative documentary on the late civil rights activist and prolific writer, James Baldwin (I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck; worth the price of admission, but regrettable for its failure to tackle the full scope of Baldwin’s contradictory existence), and the surrealistic late-night comedy flair of Jordan Peele—successfully channeled into big screen, feature-length form in the topical blockbuster Get Out.

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Photographer JR paces a beach in Normandy, where he and Agnès Varda have just pasted one of many portraits taken throughout Faces Places on the base of a WWII bunker—which was pushed off the precipice of a nearby cliff. © 2017, Cohen Media Group.

On the international stage, we were blessed with offerings from the subtle genius of Ms. Agnès Varda (whose latest documentary, Faces Places, is a fountain of joys), the sensuous intellectualism of Luca Guadagnino (in the James Ivory-penned audience favorite, Call Me By Your Name), and the slick auteurism of Denis Villeneuve (whose eagerly anticipated sequel to Ridley Scott’s seminal masterwork—Blade Runner 2049—left me breathless and teary-eyed). We encountered the quietly mysterious spiritualism of Olivier Assayas (who brilliantly melded the mystical horror of Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now with the existential melodrama of Krzysztof Kieślowski, in his original film Personal Shopper), the stark realism of Francis Lee (God’s Own Country), and the smarter-than-average populism of Guillermo Del Toro (The Shape of Water). And while I could easily use this essay to sing praises to each of these international works, it seems to me—with all the tumult and unrest engulfing us on the national (and international) stage(s)—that a more pressing need may be met by attempting to highlight the fruits of my homeland: a country that has, since its very inception, provoked justifiable skepticism around its merits.

Much has already been written about on-going struggles, pertaining to inequality and sexual harassment within the American film industry (along with every other facet of our socioeconomic structure). The movement to systemically advance opportunities for marginalized individuals—and the parallel movement, to raise awareness for the plight of those experiencing institutionalized harassment and discrimination—is long overdue. Perhaps because of this delayed reform, it seems there may be an unfortunate residual effect emerging from this discourse (and more specifically, from the online social media factor; for while this technology has proven well-suited to a number of ends, social progress has scarcely been one of them). That is, the tendency to cynically lament the shortcomings of a given system—in 2016, the “swamp” of Washington, D.C.; in 2017, Hollywood—all the while forgetting that not every individual involved in said system represents said shortcomings.

For instance, if we are to examine the strengths and deficits of the United States, circa 2018, it would be easy—too easy—to highlight the deficit column, and disregard altogether the finer qualities we’ve represented more capably in the past. But would such emphasis prove these qualities to be nonexistent in the present? Or would it merely bring to light the fact that these merits are an integral part of the American fabric—that they have fallen on hard times, and may need some attention to flourish once more? I am hopeful that this new wave of social activism will contribute to the reignition of our country’s innovation and resiliency; qualities which have fallen by the wayside for some time now (at least as far back as our cultural shift in definition—from innovation: discovery and development, to innovation: app development). I am fearful that—within our climate of antagonistic communication patterns, totalitarian politics, and a general predisposition toward reactionary patterns of behavior—this form of activism may all-too-easily be thwarted by neo-conservative powers, intent on branding minority-status citizens as victims for life, and thereby curtailing their power to advance the causes of restorative justice. Regardless of my hopes and fears, I have always found the presentation of a viable alternative to be the most effective strategy for social change (as opposed to the incessant hounding of those already well-known for fostering inequality; lest we forget that all publicity is good publicity, for those with no dignity left to jeopardize).

In a similar vein, I don’t see much merit in hounding on the immense miscarriage of finance that underlies the majority of Hollywood’s output (beyond pointing out that such a miscarriage exists). I’m a firm believer that, in a consumer society, we empower the type of work we want to see more of, whenever we make our selection at the box office ticket counter. Although the aggressive powers of marketing have escalated exponentially these past few decades—culminating in our present-day, tail-wagging-the-dog marketplace mentality—we are the ones who ultimately empower (or discourage) the makers of plastic cinema, when we hand them our attention and our money. Which is why most of us adopt a selective approach in our movie-going habits (let alone the absurd escalation in ticket and concession prices): just as in the world-at-large, one can have a positive impact on the future of cinema, by supporting the proofs of cinema which advance its more worthwhile attributes. And while each viewer has their preferences, I find it remarkable that so many of these attributes have long been shown to be universal. Consider the phenomenon—that a single film can be understood and lauded (or derided) by different nations of people, throughout every corner of the world. That we can each learn from the perceptions and experiences of perfect strangers, and in so doing develop a greater capacity for love and understanding. May this phenomenon never be taken for granted.

For the purpose of this entry (and for the cause of restoring some honor and dignity to a country that has little to champion in either department, as of this writing), I have chosen five of my favorite American films released in 2017: to hold them up as shining examples of our more worthy attributes; and to remind the reader (if one is in need of reminding) that there is still much worth championing in the American landscape. In times such as these, we may all need reminding.

 

Lady Bird
written & directed by Greta Gerwig; starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, and Timothée Chalamet
released by A24 and Universal Pictures 

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Greta Gerwig directs Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet in a scene from her beloved directorial debut, Lady Bird. © 2017, A24 and Universal Pictures.

I was first made aware of Greta Gerwig when I saw the first of several Noah Baumbach vehicles in which she appeared—the under-valued (in this writer’s opinion) and surprisingly buoyant dark comedy, Greenberg. I immediately took note of the name. There was something in the way she brought her character—and, consequently, the film—to life; something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and didn’t particularly care to. I hate to use the term “star quality,” seeing as how what passes for a star these days would make the likes of Bogey and Bacall roll in their graves. Suffice it to say, Gerwig has the sort of innate brilliance and affability that could inspire one to ask her out for a cocktail, and debate whether Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire was the better dancer (for no other reason than to hear the sound of her voice as it struggles to keep pace with the winding movements of her wit).

Gerwig has already had a terrific run (and she’s only just begin), appearing in a pair of films she has since co-written with Baumbach—her erstwhile paramour—as well as giving memorable turns in works by Todd Solondz (Wiener Dog) and Rebecca Miller (Maggie’s Plan). Watching her take the lead and walk away with every scene in Frances Ha fostered in this writer the sort of unabashed, film-loving glee that only comes around once in a blue moon; the film’s nouvelle vague aesthetic, rather than making it appear dated, actually served to highlight the confidence and strength of its content and delivery. A year before that, I was positively enchanted by her incarnation of Whit Stillman’s alter-ego, Violet, in his politely subversive and drier-than-a-communion-wafer gem of a film, Damsels in Distress: finding myself only one of two people in the theater (the other being my companion) to laugh hysterically at its tenderly acerbic take on the follies and neuroses of bourgeois young adults, I wondered if Gerwig’s particular (some may say peculiar) sensibility could ever connect with a broader audience. Half a decade later, as I sat in the packed house of that same theater for a screening of her Oscar-nominated directorial debut, I grinned and laughed uncontrollably; I thanked all of our lucky stars this moment had finally arrived.

While one is never in doubt as to the film’s author (one can practically visualize Gerwig acting out every part in the movie during script readings), the ensemble cast of Lady Bird deserves a standing ovation for their dedicated and cohesive effort to bring Gerwig’s writing to life. I was especially taken with Laurie Metcalf (who, in addition to Saoirse Ronan—the film’s protagonist—is now up for an Oscar) and Stephen Henderson, whose subtle performance as a theater instructor in the Catholic high school frequented by Lady Bird has lingered in my memory. Lady Bird’s rotation of friends and acquaintances is equally memorable: from the “shitty Pavement fan” (Gerwig’s verbatim direction) boyfriend played by Timothée Chalamet, to the helplessly perky ex- played by Lucas Hedges (most immediately recognized as the kid in Manchester By the Sea), to her best friend and confidante, Julie (a beaming Beanie Feldstein).

Given time, Lady Bird is likely to be lumped in a basket with every other coming-of-age comedy to ever achieve critical acclaim (The GraduateCluelessRushmoreThe Breakfast Club, etc…). And while there would certainly be some fine company in this basket, it would be a disservice to the extraordinary nuance of Gerwig’s film—which unlike The Graduate, with its stylish cynicism (or Rushmore, with its stylish stylism) happens to be an unexpectedly intricate and layered portrait of adolescence; above and beyond what most are accustomed to getting out of a Wednesday matinee. That such an unabashedly smart, disarmingly confident slice of American film-making could emerge from our current cultural climate—and in the process, achieve international acclaim—is a testament to the finer qualities of the American sensibility. It is also a testament to the (possibly boundless) potential of a strong, idiosyncratic voice in the latest chapter of our nation’s cinema.

 

Last Flag Flying
directed by Richard Linklater; written by Richard Linklater & Darryl Ponicsan; starring Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishbourne, J. Quinton Johnson, and Cicely Tyson
released by Amazon Studios and Lionsgate

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Left to right: Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishbourne, and Steve Carrell play three Vietnam war veterans in Last Flag Flying, Richard Linklater & Darryl Ponicsan’s “spiritual sequel” to The Last Detail. © 2017, Amazon Studios & Lionsgate

It is probably no great secret, among my friends and fellow movie fanatics, that I have a strong affinity for the work of Richard Linklater. Ever since my first viewing of Waking Life, in the form of a DVD borrowed from my local library, I have followed every step of Linklater’s career—with a mixture of fascination and mild apathy (something tells me he would approve of this response; it’s mostly fascination, anyhow).

In Last Flag Flying, Linklater tenderly pays tribute to another great film love of mine—the late Hal Ashby; whose 1973 adaptation of the earlier Darryl Ponicsan novel, The Last Detail, provides much of the spirit for Linklater’s quasi-sequel. It’s an honest, considered, personalized reproduction of the story Ponicsan wrote three decades later (at the height of the second Gulf War): in many regards, the narratives run parallel to each other; but this later entry is more firmly rooted in the trenches of death, and the sorrow of survival. Their events seem to overlap: in both stories, for instance, the three protagonists share a night on the town in New York—and subsequently miss their train. The fact that in one they’re looking to get laid, while in the other they’re looking to buy some mobile phones, is entirely beside the point; the echo effect is palpable, and it is bound to resonate with fans of Ashby’s cult classic. A large part of what renders Last Flag Flying such a noteworthy feat (or proof) of American cinema, is this sense of connected-ness: with the histories of its characters; the histories of its authors; and with the most radically inspired, promising film era in our nation’s cinema (spanning ’68 to ’79, or thereabouts; also the timeline for Ashby’s career). Some may deride this sort of praise as high-handed, but as our connectivity to history becomes increasingly scarce—with sound bytes and YouTube clips superceding context and formal analysis—I think it’s warranted.

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Left to right: Otis Young, Randy Quaid, and Jack Nicholson play three Navy corpsmen in Hal Ashby’s 1973 adaptation of The Last Detail. © 1973, Columbia Pictures.

What is most notable about this picture, perhaps, are the thoughtful ways in which Linklater asserts his own personality and characterization throughout. For whereas both Ashby and Linklater linger on the spiritual questing of troubled characters, Linklater advances the quest through a far more directly pointed approach. In The Last Detail, Jack Nicholson’s “Badass” Buddusky rolls his eyes during a unitarian gathering of chanting practitioners; in Last Flag Flying, Bryan Cranston’s Sal embarks upon an incessant, often irritating (intentionally, at that; and effectively, kudos to Cranston) tirade against the perceived-as-indoctrinated rationale of his former buddy—now-Reverend—Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishbourne). Which isn’t to say this confrontational perspective belongs to the director himself (though the viewer may pick up subtle shades of Ethan Hawke’s Jesse in Cranston’s Sal); Linklater merely had the wisdom and good faith to reveal, whenever possible, the changes that time has inflicted upon his characters—along with the changes time has withheld. That there is no direct connection between the three characters portrayed by the actors in each film is especially effective—and affecting: for by pointing to separate instances of similar life patterns, Linklater and Ponicsan achieve a far broader sense of connectivity with the human condition. It’s the sort of artistic gesture that reveals how, even though our behaviors are developed through a complex mixture of environmental and biological triggers, they frequently perpetuate themselves through stubborn repetition, and through subjugation to damaging social constructs (in this case, the construct of war). And if the complexities of human behavior can be perpetuated, it follows they must also be capable of change.

In keeping with this insight (which doesn’t emerge until farther along in the characters’ journey), Last Flag Flying closes on a dark but optimistic note. The resolution belongs to Steve Carrell’s character—an ex-Navy corpsman known as “Doc” Shepherd; the heart of the film, in more ways than one (Carrell’s performance being a quiet and inexorable force throughout). The film fades out as “Doc” achieves a sort of closure with the premature death of his only son; the song that fades in during the end credits is “Not Dark Yet,” from Bob Dylan’s beautiful late ’90s offering, Time Out of Mind. It provides the perfect post-script for the trajectory of these characters—a trio of Vietnam war veterans struggling to connect the dots of their scattered lives (“I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from“). It also manages to connect their struggle to the more imminent struggles faced by our country, at this specific juncture in history; for as we sit around, waiting for someone to step up and dethrone the lunatic who’s been given free reign to distort our country for private gain, many of us search for signs of hope—struggling to find some comfort in the paradox betrayed by Dylan’s song: it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.

 

Chavela
directed by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi; starring Chavela Vargas, Pedro Almodóvar, Elena Benarroch,  Miguel Bosé, and Liliana Felipe
released by Aubin Pictures

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Pedro Almodóvar and Chavela Vargas: two rebellious spirits, captured in Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi’s exceptional documentary, Chavela. © 2017 Aubin Pictures.

I am so grateful that my local art house cinema (Neon Movies) picked up this very special and memorable documentary; it was particularly rewarding to have one of the film’s co-authors, Daresha Kyi, in attendance for a live Q&A post-screening. Her pensive and often comical commentary validated all of the finer presumptions this writer had gathered from the screening, but it also served to open up many of the complexities and contradictions scattered throughout the surface (and subtext) of Chavela.

According to Kyi, the process of making a documentary about the famed (and infamous) Mexican chanteuse, Chavela Vargas, began under different circumstances than what one sees in the finished product. The project actually originated with an in-person interview, conducted by Catherine Gund with Chavela at the start of the singer’s first major comeback in the early ’90s. Having gone through her personal archives and digitized all the decomposing film lying in canisters around her studio, Gund rediscovered the power of this twenty-some year old footage, and felt compelled to share it with Kyi. Upon viewing the footage together, and catching up on the later years of Chavela’s life story, the initial concept developed by Gund and Kyi involved having another Latina chanteuse narrate Chavela’s story through her own personal lens. Gund and Kyi assembled a rough promo edit of this approach, then screened the material for a group of potential investors. The consensus was clear: forget about the other singer (whom Kyi did not refer to by name during the Q&A); the story is Chavela’s, and she should be the star of her film.

Upon approval of an expanded budget, Gund and Kyi were able to license footage from different televised interviews and performances, conducted at various times throughout Chavela’s complicated (and at times, difficult to trace) career. They proceeded to film present-day interviews with persons of interest, spanning the course of Chavela’s professional and personal development: a former lover (and life-long private attorney); the Spanish filmmaker, Pedro Almodóvar (who was partly responsible for Chavela’s European comeback tour, along with Laura García-Lorca); and accomplished film composer/long-time admirer, Miguel Bosé. Weaving together the present-day interviews with archival materials, Gund and Kyi have achieved a seemingly well-rounded, often contradictory portrait of their subject—a character whose most prominent qualities arose from her own contradictions. Chavela’s story is alternately inspirational and tragic; outrageous and miraculous. It’s a story (and a voice) that resonates with the most profound notes on the human scale, triggering pulses and emotions that strike the viewer/listener on a multitude of levels. The film’s emotional power serves to eulogize the life of the film’s subject, but it also reminds us of the forest we sometimes fail to perceive—among the tangled trees of this modern existence.

It seems we have reached a point in our history, where tensions have risen about as high as they could possibly rise: we see many of our fellow Americans running for cover from their perceived opponents, from one uncertain day to the next. In times such as these, there is greater pressure than ever to conform to some kind of an agenda; to restore some modicum of stability, or at least the illusion thereof. In the midst of all this pressure, Gund and Kyi gently remind us that many great figures in world history happen to be individuals who refused to conform: women like Chavela, who first made waves by refusing to wear a dress—and later, by rejecting the more limiting definitions of the contemporary LGBTQ vernacular; men like Pedro Almodóvar, who refused to make boring, run-of-the-mill, politically “sensitive” comedies—eventually finding his own niche audience through a celebration of the most outlandish and perverse attributes of outlandish and perverse characters (and narratives). Theirs are the sort of rebellious gestures that will retain their power and intrigue, long after the sediment of history has settled above them.

Gund and Kyi are smart enough to not impose an expected emotional response to the story of their film’s protagonist (unlike the makers of Amy, a film which Kyi admitted to being inspired by, but which she has visibly surpassed): the audience I was a part of responded to Chavela’s story in a variety of ways, and I found this reassuring. For it gives one hope that one day, our dominant culture may catch up with this time-earned awareness: that new possibilities can only arise when we allow our agendas to be challenged, and maybe even discarded (and conversely, possibilities will wither and fade away, whenever we permit an agenda to override a truth).

 

Phantom Thread
directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, and Vicky Krieps
released by Focus Features

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The stunning power couple of Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps share a New Year’s dance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s exquisite melodrama, Phantom Thread. © 2017, Focus Features.

Phantom Thread, the eighth film by American maverick Paul Thomas Anderson, is one of the finest pictures of 2017—and a powerful reminder of every quality that is unique to the tapestry of American cinema. Like Linklater, Anderson is an artist in touch with his film ancestry, unafraid to wear his influences on his sleeve; and much like Linklater, he refuses to cave in to the traps of plagiarism and self-aggrandizement. That his work often carries reverberations of Altman and Scorsese never implies an attempt to elevate his efforts beyond their given potential: rather, these reverberations serve to point the audience in the direction of a cinematic context—highlighting differences as much as similarities, and revealing the greatest common thread to be a stubborn adherence to one’s own dream logic.

Much like his previous Daniel Day-Lewis vehicle, the now-cult-worthy There Will Be BloodPhantom Thread has the quality of a runaway fever dream. But whereas in the previous outing, this sensibility was carried to the extremes of emotional abstraction and narrative inscrutability, their most recent effort takes a more carefully deliberated and thoughtfully contained approach. When one revisits the bulk of Anderson’s output, one often finds an artist struggling to incorporate as many of his (often brilliant, sometimes baffling) ideas into manageable feature-length form. In Phantom Thread, we find the same filmmaker who was responsible for the more quietly austere debut feature, Hard Eight (a.k.a. Sydney): an artist intent on chipping away at the excess—to sculpt a shape defined as much by its omissions as by its features. The resulting effort is ambiguous but precise; perversely comical (in a manner that would’ve made Buñuel blush) and intensely, convincingly melodramatic. It’s nothing short of a cinephile’s dream.

Although it is likely true that all great movies begin with a solid script, Anderon’s films often seem heavily predicated upon their casting (something that could just as easily be applied to Robert Altman, of whom Anderson was an avowed admirer). A substantial part of the joy provided by witnessing Phantom Thread as it unfolds, stems from the organic spark between the film’s three stars—each of them delivering Oscar-worthy turns—and the characters they’ve so adroitly given life. Lesley Manville, in particular, provides a sort of cornerstone for the elaboration of the film’s more subtle character constructions: in her own words (as quoted in a BFI interview), she embodies “this person who is quite rod-like, and can do so much with just one flicker of the eyes.” Around this immovable fixture, the heightened emotional volatility of Daniel Day-Lewis (as Reynolds Woodcock) and Vicky Krieps (as Alma Woodcock) swirls in varying degrees of pathological complexity: at times revealing itself to be an extension of the characters’ personal traumas—such as the chillingly gorgeous sequence, in which Reynolds evokes the ghost of his mother—and at others, boiling out of the alchemy between their respective pathologies. Ultimately, all three characters emerge with the sort of understated depth and intricacy that has, up to this point in film history, only been afforded the likes of Norma Shearer and Anton Walbrook (in the great British films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger). Like all great American auteurs, Anderson knows to steal only from the best.

On the other side of the vaingloriously chauvinstic posturing of Day-Lewis, Krieps shines as a sly sort of antidote to the suffocating dogmatism of over-zealous social (media) activism. Quoted in the same BFI piece mentioned above, Krieps observes that: “I respect Alma so much because she doesn’t really need the recognition or the approval, and this makes us strong… If a woman is not seeking this approval, this is a strength that’s stronger than anything, and you don’t then have to fight your ground, you just take your ground. What I like about the movie is that it’s about a dance between a man and a woman. It’s not about who’s stronger and it’s not about who will win. Once we get past this idea of ‘are the men stronger or the women?’ and just accept that men and women are ultimately completely different and completely opposite and will never be the same—until we understand and accept that—we can then have the conversation, the real conversation we really need. That’s when it will be interesting.”

Perhaps no writing on Phantom Thread captures my feelings about the film more capably than the review penned by A.O. Scott for the New York Times: “There are movies that satisfy the hunger for relevance, the need to see the urgent issues of the day reflected on screen. Paul Thomas Anderson’s eighth feature—which may also be Daniel Day-Lewis’s last movie—is emphatically and sublimely not one of them. It awakens other appetites, longings that are too often neglected: for beauty, for strangeness, for the delirious, heedless pursuit of perfection. I’ve only seen this film once […] and I’m sure it has its flaws. I will happily watch it another dozen times until I find them all.”

 

Wonderstruck
directed by Todd Haynes; starring Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Millicent Simmonds, Jaden Michaels, and Tom Noonan

released by Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

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Todd Haynes looks down on the immersive New York City panorama—showcased unforgettably at the conclusion of his latest offering, Wonderstruck. © 2017, Amazon Studios & Roadside Attractions.

Todd Haynes is one of the finest American artists working today, and I hope the relative poor performance of this latest offering (which left critics and audiences scratching their heads in unison) does nothing to dissuade him from following his gut—and venturing far into the wilderness of his boundless and brilliant imagination in the projects yet to come. (And dear god almighty: may the financing keep flowing.) If one reviews Haynes’s filmography to date, one may well identify a knack for engaging in meta-historical conversations with the history of art itself: from the inter-textual experimentalism of Poison (where Jean Genet, AIDS hysteria, the ’50s family melodrama, and the American B-movie collide in exquisitely strange unison), to the daring innovation of his pop music biopics, I’m Not There and Velvet Goldmine (both of which draw from a near-exhausting wealth of inspirations), to the so-far-ahead-of-its-time-it’s-frightening masterpiece, Safe (driven by the finest performance in Julianne Moore’s career-to-date, and an anti-aesthetical conviction that could have given Kubrick a run for his money—in its brutal, unrelenting aim to reveal the power of environment-over-character). And let us not forget the deceptively straightforward melodrama of Far From Heaven, a film so profoundly entangled in the yarn of its own history—which includes the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, the mythology of Rock Hudson (the reluctant Hollywood queer archetype), and the New German cinema of Rainer Werner Fassbinder—that most viewers barely begin scratching the surface of its possible interpretations.

I suppose any commentary on Haynes’s work is bound to solicit accusations of cinephilic elitism and hyper-cerebral analysis. And while such accusations may be warranted, I will readily revert to the same defense offered Last Flag Flying: that with so many contemporary film-makers disengaging from the quilt of film history, is it not acceptable for a handful of our remaining innovators to champion their roots and—more importantly—explore the remaining possibilities for cinematic evolution? For if the reader is open to such a notion, Wonderstruck will likely prove a rewarding and thought-provoking experience. It’s the sort of children’s movie we used to excel at producing in this country, but have seemingly forgotten how to tackle in more recent years. Haynes taps into the unstated wisdom of childhood: namely, a child’s natural ability to withstand the unfathomable sadness of their own existence; a sadness which many of us, as adults, find ourselves less equipped to withstand. Beyond this insight, Haynes revels in the mystified, tangent-prone mindset of his characters. He is the proverbial “kid in a candy store,” and it shows with every frame: just as the children are inclined to impulsive flights of fancy, Haynes is prone to indulge in the occasional bit of cinematic homage (in this instance, a couple of clever, well-played nods to Being There) and self-referentiality (as in the use of stop-motion dolls to reconstruct his characters’ fading memories, calling to mind his now-iconic use of Mattel dolls in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story; or the use of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” calling to mind his thinly-veiled reconstruction of the Ziggy Stardust story in Velvet Goldmine).

What sets Haynes’s work apart from the mass of self-made auteurs (many of whom bask in the onanism of referencing their own work) is his commitment to conversing with the work of other filmmakers, as much as with his own. And to this end, Haynes betrays a rather singular proclivity for establishing context around his art. Not unlike David Lynch (perhaps his closest relative, in postmodern terms), Haynes provides all the necessary clues for the audience to engage in their own private dialogue with his work. As artists, they share in a recognition that their audience will bring their own plate to the table; and they both know better than to dictate which ingredients their audience should eat. From this perspective, all that matters is that the audience be granted sufficient information to trace the lineage of the food on the table, if they so desire. (Or, if they’re inclined towards a more immersive experience, they can ignore the trail of clues altogether and just savor the feast.)

As for the story of Wonderstruck, suffice it to say that it is every bit as simple and convoluted as a children’s book ought to be (it is adapted from a hefty novel by Brian Selznick, which I have not read). All of the actors deliver strong, convincing performances—particularly newcomer Millicent Simmonds, who has the capacity to break your heart before forcing a smile in the course of an instant—and Carter Burwell’s scoring is sublime throughout. Without a doubt, the best write-up the movie could ask for was provided by the amiable John Waters, who coyly suggested in his year-end top 10 list: “Want an IQ test for your cinephile children? Just take them to see this beautifully made, feel-good kids’ movie about the hearing-impaired, starring a little girl who looks exactly like Simone Signoret. If your small-fry like the film, they’re smart. If they don’t, they’re stupid.”

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So there you have it. Five proofs of American cinema; five signs of hope—that there are still those among us with adequate wisdom, perseverance, and vision to point a way out of the darkness. May these bright lights among us continue to shine through the falling night, and may they inspire others to do the same.

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Jaden Michael, Oakes Fegley, and Julianne Moore look up with wonder at a sky full of possibilities. Wonderstruck © 2017, Amazon Studios & Roadside Attractions.

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Please note that, out of necessity, this essay discusses key plot points and character elements.

 

In a scene toward the end of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a police officer under suspension (an award-winning turn by Sam Rockwell) phones up the film’s main protagonista grieving mother, played by an also-award-winning Frances McDormandto inform her that a recently identified suspect in the rape and murder of McDormand’s late daughter has, in fact, been cleared of any wrong-doing through DNA evidence. As the scene stiltedly plays itself out, Rockwell toys with an upward-pointed shotgun next to the phone, taunting the viewer to speculate as to what he might be planning to do with it: is he going to follow in the footsteps of his former Police Chief Willoughby (a type-cast Woody Harrelson), who blew his head off in the film’s messy first act? Or is he going to lash out at his own cynically bigoted mother, whom the filmmakers have rather clumsily asked to carry the blame for her son’s inherited bigotry? Or is he merely planning to “take the law in his own hands”to deliberately go after the “wrong guy,” and facilitate a mother’s revenge by proxy? Regardless of the specifics, you can see writer/director Martin McDonagh grinning from cheek to cheek behind the camera, clearly delighted by the exclusively violent thought pattern he’s conditioned his audience to adopt these past two hours.

If I had to choose just one scene to highlight everything that’s wrong with this movie (a challenging task, seeing as how the film doesn’t work on so many levels), it would likely be this one. For it seems to me that the only real achievement of Martin McDonagh’s strangely acclaimed third feature film, is his unrelenting desire to revel in male brutality, and then grasp at straws for an excuse to defend its pre-eminence among his characters. To be sure, there are some strong performances by several actors in the production (alongside a pair of spectacularly awful supporting turns by Abbie Cornish and Caleb Landry Jones), but it’s a given that this has all been in spite of his own flimsy screenplayand most certainly, in spite of the even flimsier point of view upon which it all rests. With great pseudo-sympathetic finesse, McDonagh has rather petulantly disguised the dumbed-down masculinity at the core of his movie with the presence of two strong performances by women (McDormand and Sandy Martinmost immediately recognized as Roman Grant’s sister in HBO’s Big Love), and a third by the emotionally versatile Peter Dinklage, all of whom could have made better use of their abilities in a soup commercial. This sentiment goes twofold for the multi-talented Dinklage, who I imagine must have experienced a drastic shortage of work opportunities in 2017, to have cornered himself into a project that’s little more than a short person joke in search of a supporting narrative.

In thinking back on how much I disliked Three Billboards, it dawned on me that the movie’s tone carries a whiff of the same black humor which made HBO’s short-lived series Vice Principals such a consistently rewarding experience. And in comparing the two, one can countright off the batseveral areas in which McDonagh & co. got it all wrong: first, by refusing to give their non-white characters more than two scenes apiece (the relative lack of purpose granted the black police chief, and the sales associate at McDormand’s knick-knack store, is enough to make one wonder why they even bothered to cast them at all); by falling back on easy character clichés and backstory sketches, robbing them of any truthful complexity and highlighting further narrative frailties at every turn; and most notably, through a spectacular lack of directorial self-awarenesscoupled with a failure to understand the fundamental tenets of comic timing (and an embarrassing over-abundance of confidence in execution). McDonagh ought to thank his lucky stars for Carter Burwell, whose typically spot-on scoring (along with the powerhouse that is Frances McDormand) provides one of the picture’s sole, consistently redeeming motifs.

Though there are any number of opinions floating around as to what constitutes a solid piece of narrative filmmaking, my personal predilection lies with the notion that characterand a love of the characters one brings to life on screenis a recurring ingredient. And while there are several legitimate complaints one might feasibly lodge against McDonagh, in regards to sketchy characterization and clumsy dialogue (which perpetually places a desire to offend the audience above a desire for credible and/or inventive development), the foremost complaint in my eyes is that he exhibits no real love for his characters. Excepting, of course, for the characters whose defining quality is brutality (which begs the question: does he actually care about people, or is he simply enamored by this one character attribute?). While examining the drive of male brutality could prove a timely and productive endeavor in our current cultural climate, McDonagh hasn’t exerted much effortat least, none that shows throughout the endurance test of the film’s 115-minute runtimeto examine the big picture of whatever it is he’s painted here.

[If you happen to be reading this, Mr. McDonagh (an unlikely event—of this I’m aware), might I recommend you have a look at the work of Fuller and Lumet; two of your American predecessors, both of whom sought in their work to present the banality of evil, without reverting to the tactics of shallow ridicule (and both of whom would never, even in their most sentimental hour, have condescended to include that scene of the injured victim bringing a cup of juice to his injured abuser—diffusing the severity of a horribly violent assault in a cloud of feel-good sentimentality).]

Everything in this picture appears to have been assembled from a perverse top-down logic, starting with McDonagh’s assessment that people are incapable of total compassion or understanding for one another, and closing with the determination that ergo, his characters are entitled to brutalize anyone who stimulates their anger; and should anyone dare to argue with this logic, there’s the racist, Donald Sutherland-loving (no connection, I hope) mother to be held up as the biological forebearer of all this brutality. If this is what passes for nuance these days, Americans might just be better off sticking to superhero blockbusters.

threebillboards

Frances McDormand delivers an undeservedly outstanding performance, in Martin McDonagh’s otherwise forgettable black comedy-thriller, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. © 2017, Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The only way I can bring myself to read Three Billboards as less than a total fail, is to consider it a lousy attempt at southern gothic. But whereas artists as diverse as Flannery O’Connor, John Huston, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, and the Coen Brothers have succeeded time and againby investing a genuine passion and curiosity in the pathology of unstable characters, and emerging on the other side with a convincing portrait of human behavior (whose very credibility is contingent upon a suspension of the author’s own absolute, autonomous understanding of said behavior)McDonagh is a stylist posing as a humanist. (Worse than that, even: he appears to have convinced himself he already holds the key to the riddle of human behavior, and therefore need not consume himself with the lowly pursuit of challenging his own assumptions.)  His sloppily constructed story for Three Billboards is so consumed with graphic and exploitative (and mostly unfunny) gags involving rape, guns, suicide, immigrants, dwarves, throwing people out of windows, and burning people alive, one questions whether he even cares about the medium he’s working in; for if he did, would he not have taken a step back from all this, and recognized how none of it flows togetheron the most basic level of narrative cinema? Or the scattershot, yawn-inducing essence of its rather puerile perspective? Would he not have then recognized the completed picture’s failure to capture the complexity of the issues it half-heartedly attempts to tackleor the fact that it’s barely ever entertaining? And couldn’t someone close to the project have pointed out, at any point during the production, that he was merely making a low-rent No Country For Old Men (without any of the Coens’ trademark humor-and-intrigue)?

I recently finished an illuminating book, called Iconsa monograph on the collected work of another frequently divisive American film maverick, Gus Van Santin which Benjamin Thorel thoughtfully observes that: “[Van Sant’s characters] are subjects capable of understanding their attachmentsbut who may not be easy to understand […] Van Sant makes visible all those who make up specific worldsmarginal communities, individuals in crisis, suspended (sexual, political, social) identitieswithout turning them into objects of knowledge” (an observation that could just as easily be applied to works by O’Connor, McCullers, Huston, etc…) While it is perhaps unfair to expect this level of artistic integrity/profundity from all American filmmakers, I think it is fair to hold this perspective up as a sort of alternative to McDonagh’s cinema of blood and ignorancewhich has palpably descended from the same bloody ignorance of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez: auteurs more consumed by the sound of their own voices, than by an inner drive to try and understand the human condition a little better with each project. A cinema that cares about representing human behavior truthfully, sharing a love for humankind (in spite of its frequent folly) with the audience, opposed to a cinema that cares more about perpetuating brutalitythrough an unquestioningly sadistic embrace of its many forms (shades of the 2016 election, anyone?)all the while losing sight of its own prospective entertainment value.

In addition to the scene highlighted at the beginning of this entry, one of the most ineffective sequences I can think of in the picture is the one surrounding Willoughby’s violent suicide: starting with the chosen activity of his last day on earthtaking his daughters out fishing, then leaving them to their own devices so he and Mrs. Willoughby can have a roll in the high grass. Here, McDonagh has Harrelson deliver one of several atrociously written bits of dialogue (more mono- than dia-, really), in which the apparent challenge was to cram as many “goddamn”s as could conceivably fit in each sentence, despite the end result sounding like an unintentional bit of Pinter-esque theater. Then we have an awkward cut from the children’s bedroom, in which Harrelson puts his daughters to bed for the last time, to the shot of Harrelson planting a kiss on his wife’s mouth (edited, I take it, to have a laugh at the notion of a police chief making out with his own daughter?) Then, Abbie Cornish tries out a(nother) half-dozen different accents in front of the camera, before falling asleep and leaving her husband to walk out to the barn and blow his brains out. We hear the voice-over narration of Harrelson’s final letter to his wife, in which he details up-to-the-last-minute activities with his family; then, just as the viewer has begun to contemplate when, exactly, he might’ve had the time to write this letter (seeing as how the montage moved directly from Cornish’s dialect crisis to the barnyard suicide), McDonagh cuts from the forensic examination of Harrelson’s body to a shot of him still alive, writing the letter in his dining room earlier that night. It all plays as though McDonagh had placed the proverbial cart in front of the horse, and had to include this little post-script to clear up a bit of confusion that could’ve (or should’ve) been avoided altogether, had he any real competence as a scenarist. At best, it’s a bit of bad montage; at worst, the product of someone who gets his kicks from displaying acts of grotesque violence on screen, but doesn’t care about the real-life weight of the acts he’s representingat least, not enough to sort out the basic logistics beforehand; for the sake of his characters’ dignity, if for no other reason. (It is also possible that he is oblivious to the power he wields, having been granted the opportunity to represent real-life scenarios on a big screen, for millions of viewers around the world. If this is the case, we have an even bigger problem on our hands.)

This all brings me full circle to my initial query: How come, Hollywood? Why was it deemed necessary for this thoughtless mess to be bankrolled, and then steamrolled into the Awards season? And how come, Hollywood Foreign Press: in your pursuit to identify and reward the most successful American film drama of 2017, this is the best you could come up with? I won’t bother to point out the litany of more deserving features released this year; this is an annual oversight (reinforced and perpetuated by aggressive “for your consideration” campaigns) that we should all be well-accustomed to by now. But in picking Three Billboards as the dramatic film (and even more perplexingly, the best screenplay of the year), what are you trying to tell us about the future of cinema?

They’re likely far too polite to ask aloud, but I imagine Luca Guadagnino, Paul-Thomas Anderson, Sean Baker, and Greta Gerwig (among other women whose names weren’t even brought up) would all welcome some answers.

clar·i·ty
ˈklerədē/
noun
  1. the quality of being clear, in particular.
    • the quality of coherence and intelligibility.
    • the quality of being easy to see or hear; sharpness of image or sound.

As is the case with any list, compiling a year-end best-of can be approached from a multitude of possible angles. For example, one could take a simple quantitative approach and tally up the number of listens per album (and with computer technology and ready-made apps like iTunes and Windows Media Player, this is easier than ever to assess). One could also decide to focus primarily on new releases which provided the listener with something truly new—a musical need that might not yet have been met by the existing records on one’s shelf. In my personal experience, this approach tends to take precedence, seeing as how there are fewer thrills in life more rewarding than hearing something so very different—so exceptionally invigorating, one feels as though the entirety of their life has been propelling them towards this encounter with a sound imperative to their very survival.

Truth be told, this year did not provide many such experiences for this writer; at least, not in that truest sense of “wow… I’ve never heard anything remotely like this before, and I can’t fathom how I’ve lived this long without that sound in my life.” Conversely, this year’s onslaught of top-notch new releases, from a variety of excellent artists—existing and debuting—provides the unique (and uniquely rewarding) experience of sorting through a litany of contenders for top 10 consideration, with few pointers in the way of “originality” to guide one’s selection (for with a century of recorded music to choose from, how can we expect anything new to expand upon the broad and rather loose parameters of what has already been proven possible in song form?).

After considering the various possibilities, I decided to adopt a distinctly personal approach before tackling this list you’re about to peruse. Although there may not be anything totally unheard of on this list—many of these releases are by well-established artists; those that are not, still represent iterations of well-established musical tropes—each of these releases were especially important to me this year: for they each carried within their grooves some incarnation of (or a clever play on) the notion of clarity. Which is a notion I find myself gravitating towards more and more each day, as its parallel concepts of logic and certainty run a daily risk of being rendered vestigial, and our country’s place on the planet (let alone our planet’s place in the universe) seems increasingly uncertain.

Something else happened to me this year, which has no doubt taken some kind of toll on the perspective I brought to this list. For midway through 2017, I turned 30; and while it was just another day in the life (I seem to have conveniently sidestepped that self-imposed age crisis brought about by an even decimal), I’ve definitely felt the beginning pangs of a weight—a weight which, I imagine, must accompany any person who has ever really lived. I find myself having a more difficult time recalling those trivial quotes and archival tidbits, which used to wait impatiently on the tip of my tongue; pearls of anecdotal wealth, spent too frequently (or held back for too long) to maintain priority status in the recesses of one’s memory. Consequently—and for some of my more long-suffering friends, somewhat thankfully—I find myself talking a little less.

This also means that I’ve been listening more carefully than ever, and I can say quite confidently that the music written about below has been reciprocated by the most astute level of interest I’ve ever harbored towards any year’s musical offerings. And true to form, for someone with a diminishing ability for instant recall, I found myself jostling from one title to the next on this list—saying to myself “ah, this is the one!,” over and over (think Patsy and Edy sampling French wines in that detoxing vacation episode of Absolutely Fabulous: “no, this is the one”). And if asked on a different day, in a different mood, the sequence of this list may vary somewhat. Regardless of the semantics involved, my only wish is that I’ll hold onto enough of my memory to recall these records decades from now, when I predict they will hold a comparable (and possibly enriched) luster of clarity and brilliance.

image1 (7)

Some of this year’s favorites. Clockwise, from top left: Mavis Staples / If All I Was Was Black; Fleet Foxes / Crack-Up; Jesca Hoop / Memories Are Now; Slowdive / s/t; David Bowie / No Plan; Johnny Jewel / Windswept; Magnetic Fields / 50 Song Memoir; Brian Eno / Reflection; Ryuichi Sakamoto / async; The Jesus & Mary Chain / Damage and Joy; Father John Misty / Pure Comedy; Sparks / Hippopotamus; Randy Newman / Dark Matter; Alison Moyet / Other; Jarvis Cocker & Chilly Gonzales / Room 29; Kamasi Washington / Harmony of Difference; Various / Twin Peaks: Music From the Limited Series Event; Charlotte Gainsbourg / Rest.

The list:

25. The Book of Law – Lawrence Rothman
(Interscope)

 

I first heard Lawrence Rothman via the phenomenal lead single from The Book of Law, “Wolves Still Cry.” My initial response: a sudden longing to exist in an alternate dimension, where Top 40 singles still sounded like this (top melody; a bridge; harmonies, even!). Fleshed out by Nile Rodgers-influenced rhythm guitar, subtle bass undulations, synthesizer flourishes, and Rothman’s occasionally breath-taking falsetto, the track merits fair consideration as single of the year.

Who is Lawrence Rothman? (Or, more appropriately, who are Lawrence Rothman?) A gender-fluid, multiple-personality pop star-in-the-making from St. Louis—now settled into the Cahuenga Pass of Los Angeles—whose debut album bring all nine of his split personae together in a shockingly accessible, disco-tinted fever dream. (If you’re not sold on the premise, just give the song a listen and try not to lose yourself in its iridescent perfection; if still in doubt, chase it down with the only-slightly-less brilliantine “Stand By“). Calling to mind one of the greatest living musical artists (who remains, shamefully, unknown to most)—the unsung King of Southern Gothic Country-dream pop: Daughn Gibson—Rothman has come out with both guns blazing in this fiercely dedicated collection of dance floor anthems and late-night ballads. They’ve even opened the gate to potential accusations of showboating, having performed as all nine protagonists in a series of original music videos produced in conjunction with the album’s digital release; think Annie Lennox in Sophie Muller’s Savage films, crossed with a more subtle/subversively confrontational Die Antwoord. The Book of Law reveals the typical shortcomings of an otherwise-brilliant debut (namely: a few too many iterations of the same idea; too many cooks in some of its kitchens), but it should still be a shoo-in for “best new pop offering” this year.

Rothman themself went on record in a recent interview, saying that “David Lynch saved my life.” One can only pray that Mr. Lynch will continue saving the lives of other fledgling musicians. If so (and if The Book of Law offers any indication), the future of pop may not be quite as dismal as I predict it to be, otherwise.

 

24. Awaken, My Love! – Childish Gambino
(GlassNote)

 

Released digitally on December 2nd of 2016, the curiously anticipated vinyl edition of Donald Glover’s third (and purportedly final) album under the Childish Gambino moniker didn’t hit the shelves of record stores until Spring of this year. A smart (and possibly unintentional) outcome of this delay in the album’s roll-out was that the album’s second and strongest single, “Redbone”—launched two weeks prior to the album’s digital unveiling—experienced a resurgence in popularity, and widespread radio play (for the “family-friendly” edit, that is). Of course, it couldn’t have hurt matters that the song was featured in Jordan Peele’s zeitgeist-achieving debut feature film, Get Out, or that the momentum of the movie’s multi-faceted success (critical, commercial, and socio-cultural) was equally contingent upon its association with contemporary trendsetters like Glover; who not only wrote, produced, and starred in his own exceptionally clever and irresistibly entertaining TV show (FX’s Atlanta), but had also previously poked fun at his own image—with a sly nod to the same issues addressed in Get Out. In one of the show’s later episodes, a character whose specialty is the appropriation of black culture prominently displays a copy of Awaken, My Love! among his assorted, fetishized African-American ephemera.

With Glover having had such a direct hand in the shaping of the public’s perception of his album—which is a remarkable achievement; both in song and production—the finished product courted some of the same risks that other contemporary cult/pop artists (think Kendrick, Beyoncé, Father John Misty, Ryan Adams) seem to run into perpetually: ironic overload. For a work to be truly successful as a piece of post-modern pop art, it is important to strike the correct balance between irony and sincerity; awareness and tunnel vision. It’s important for the work to demonstrate respect for this widely coveted (and dreaded) opportunity the artist has been granted: the opportunity to address an audience of millions, and to have one’s every word sought out and scrutinized; at least, potentially. It is a testament to Mr. Glover, and the quality of his craftsmanship, that he appears to have managed this responsibility more than capably: he has yet to get in the way of himself. His latest album carries more than a hint of irony, but at the end of the day, it’s just 10 consecutively solid R&B songs, and one throwaway (“California”) wedged somewhere in the middle.

Though slickly produced, there is an alive feel to the record that sounds entirely unlike anything else in the pop charts at present. More Sly Stone than Nile Rodgers, the album’s alluring sound was co-produced by Swedish composer, Ludwig Göransson (who also had a hand in engineering the first two Childish Gambino outings); the sound stretches itself in a variety of directions explored by funk pioneers during the ’70s, but it displays an adequate consistency to avoid critiques of dilettantism. As for the songs themselves, Glover weaves a tapestry of loosely related (and frequently cinematic) vignettes, stitched together by the “Maggot Brain”-channeling groove of “The Night Me and Your Mama Met,” and the What’s Goin’ On?-tinted refrain of “Stand Tall” (“Keep all your dreams, keep standing tall / If you are strong you cannot fall / There is a voice inside us all / So smile when you can“).

At the end of the year, Awaken, My Love! stands tall as a great modern funk album, with the finest song heard on mainstream radio this Summer. What more can you ask for?

 

23. 30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth – Jesu & Sun Kil Moon
(Caldo Verde)

 

The self-titled debut collab, between American singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek, and British experimentalists Jesu (led by Justin Broadrick, formerly of Godflesh), went on to become one of my favorite releases of 2016. I suppose it’s only fitting that their follow-up LP, with its timely title and scenic album cover, should go on to become one of the most heavily rotated records I acquired in 2017.

30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth is perhaps not a great record; as with most of Kozelek’s recent output, there is at least one track I could entirely have done without (in this case, the 17-minute “Wheat Bread,” which reiterates all the shortcomings of previous over-indulgent Kozelek song-poems, with few of the merits his fans are prone to highlighting as a sort of pardon for failure to self-edit). But what it lacks in concision and cohesion, it more than compensates for through extended passages of inspired beauty and crystallized brilliance. Like, for instance, the ambitiously named “Greatest Conversation Ever in the History of the Universe,” which is purported to have transpired in one of Kozelek’s dreams between Lou Reed and Muhammed Ali. (For what it’s worth, he convinced me.)

When the sparkling arpeggiation of Broadrick & co. collides with the alternately spoken and sung verbosity of Kozelek’s narration, something magical happens: a(n al)chemical reaction of sorts, which returns to the listener a kaleidoscopic crystal of fused imagery and (occasionally, at least) unspoken insight. In “Greatest Conversation…,” for instance, the listener may well find themself reminded of Laurie Anderson’s recent film, Heart of a Dog—in which the multimedia artist paid tribute to her late canine companion, a scrappy rat terrier named Lola-belle. Throughout that film, Anderson recreated fragments of Lola-belle’s life (and after-life) through a combination of animation, live film, and personal narration; the latter of which frequently gives voice to Lola-belle herself, occasionally lending itself to a conversational tone. With a songwriter’s dream as the setting of Kozelek’s song, the listener may also find themself expecting the titular conversation to transpire between Anderson and the late Lou Reed, the iconic NY artist and life companion whose unique knack for nonsequitur and abrasive tenderness (if such a thing exists) was matched capably by Anderson’s tender abrasiveness and alien elocution. That Kozelek’s song manages to open a door onto each of these separate possibilities, without forcing the listener away from their own speculation (or worse yet, ignoring the existence of other portals altogether), is proof of Kozelek’s love for the imagination—and his love for the giants whose shoulders he often rests upon.

Another highlight from the record—an indelibly smart, and darkly hilarious paean to Michael Jackson (“He’s Bad”)—provided a recurring soundtrack for me, throughout this dark and tumultuous year. As a politics of division continues to supersede logic and rational discourse, Kozelek’s song cuts a jagged line through the air of righteous indignation and reactive scapegoating; the only musical equivalent that comes to mind is Randy Newman’s incisive criticism of southern nationalism, and the racist bluster of Lester Maddox (which was no less incisive in its portrayal of Maddox’s reactionary opponents). Just as “Rednecks” managed to baffle, enrage, and annoy pundits across party lines, “He’s Bad” effectively pulls the stopper out from the exposé-encrusted bathwater of our cultural climate; revealing, whether by implicit intention or happy accident, the inherent absurdity of the song’s own perspective. Bonus points are deserved for bravely including one of the most morbidly irreverent lyrical tributes to a deceased musical legend (“he didn’t stop ’til he got enough…“). In times as toxic and uncertain as the ones we find ourselves living through, such satirical adroitness might become one of the rarest and most assuaging commodities.

In addition to this uneven but consistently rewarding double-LP, Kozelek released another album of new material—one of his most ambitious to date—in February of this same year. Sprawled over two full-length CDs (or four groove-crammed LPs), Common As Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood merits a special mention for grandiosity and cathartic dedication. Though one may tire easily of its basic conceit (song-poems—more poem than song, usually—set against Steve Shelley’s crunchy drums and Nick Zubeck’s brooding basslines), the songs on Common As Light… contain passages of extreme beauty and unexpected horror, which stick with the listener far longer than the tiresome sensation one might generally associate with a two-hour-long Sun Kil Moon album. The opening track (“God Bless Ohio”) deserves a permanent place in the songwriter’s prolific rotation of live standbys.

 

22. Endless Growth – Company Man
(Overthought Musik)

 

The second offering from this Dayton, Ohio-based quartet of r’n’r veterans (three-fifths of the Motel Beds and one-fourth of Me Time) is a total delight. More refined and eclectic than the six-track EP (Brand Standard) that preceded it, Endless Growth tackles a range of fundamental rock standards with a satirical bent and the misbehaving elation of high schoolers on Summer break. We kick off with the foot-stomping, office party slayer “Floor Machine”—whose sometimes slurred lyrics seem to be about a girl (who either cooks or kicks good; or maybe both?) in search of a Led Zeppelin t-shirt. (Maybe the same girl who just wanted cheap boots and leather in Brand Standard?) Whatever the case may be, I find myself lending her pursuit my full-hearted support with every listen.

Other highlights include “Total Weenies,” “(Take) It Back (From the Limit)” (a jab at The Eagles, perhaps?), and the refreshing summer breeze of “Dr. Mister.” All throughout, lead vocalist Andy Smith proves himself as versatile a lyricist as ever, Tod and Darryl rip it up like precocious kids in a guitar shop, and the nimble drumming of Ian Kaplan provides a varied, rock-steady backbeat (let the records indicate that live-in-studio drums rarely sound as perfect as they do here). I had the good luck of seeing Company Man perform twice this year, and the band sounds every bit as locked-in to their corporate shtick on stage as on record; more-so, even, as their stage presentation highlights the Devo-esque performance art angle at every given opportunity—without ever letting it get in the way of the songs themselves.

One gets the distinct sense we are in the (still) formative stage of something big, weird, exciting, and fun here. While the clarity and quality of the songs on Endless Growth presents a tasty (and compulsively listenable) sampling of the group’s abilities, the cathartically entertaining live sound they’ve developed over the past year contains a bevy of untapped possibilities for future offerings. May their growth be as ambitious as their savaging of corporate culture.

 

21. Kraftwerk 3-D – Kraftwerk
(KlingKlang)

 

One of two entries on this list for which I might rightfully be chastised for “cheating,” the immense (and immersive) 8xLP box set collecting live performances of Kraftwerk’s post-Ralf and Florian discography—as curated in the past decade over a slew of jaw-dropping, state-of-the-art performances throughout the world (one of which, Yours Truly was fortunate enough to attend last August)—is more than just a treat for die-hard fans. It represents the culmination of a musical career with few contemporary parallels, which spans a range of artistic mediums and a litany of technological developments (many of which were propelled into mainstream use through the momentum of the band’s cutting-edge stage productions).

One of Kraftwerk 3-D‘s most startling qualities, on first listen, is its clarity (there’s that word again…) The soundboard-direct recordings contained in this set—once again representing the band’s cutting edge ethos through high-definition “3-D” surround sound—are of exceptional quality and dynamism. To have the quartet’s influential and endlessly replayable discography brushed up, and polished with a veneer of absolute consistency and accuracy, may seem like an affront (or even a sacrilege) to some listeners. And for most bands, such criticisms would probably hold true. But Kraftwerk are not, and have never been, “most bands.” Kraftwerk have persevered, throughout five decades of experimentalism and innovation, as the ultimate man-machine: the musical embodiment of a futurist harmonic between human effort and robotic precision. And just as there can only be one inventor for the light bulb, there simply cannot be another Kraftwerk awaiting us in the uncertain (and arguably unpromising) future of pop music.

For these reasons, and many more, Kraftwerk 3-D merits recognition and evaluation as a completed work onto itself. More than that even: it is the completed work of a band that never stopped looking at itself in the mirror, and questioning how they might possibly do (and be) better. With the prospect of a ninth (or twelfth, depending on how you’re counting) Kraftwerk album appearing dimmer with every passing day, it is all-too-likely that this—Ralf Hütter’s self-authored and meticulously developed ideal for the perfect live show(s)—will have to serve as the band’s imperfectly perfect epitaph. Imperfect, because the voices of Florian, Wolfgang, and Karl are sadly absent from the manuscript they co-authored with Herr Hütter (over the course of an incredible, and incredibly influential, decade in pop music). Perfect, because… well, have a listen.

 

20. Tie: Hitchhiker – Neil Young / Crack-Up – Fleet Foxes
(Reprise / Nonesuch)

As in the previous entry, it’s possible I’ll find myself accused of foul play in nominating Neil Young’s unexpected issuing of a “lost” album (originally recorded in 1976) as one of the year’s best new releases. To confound the accusation further, I’ve decided to commit a second faux pas by yoking this nominee to another, legitimate new release—the third full-length studio LP by Fleet Foxes (and first without drummer Josh Tillman, now consumed with his life as the ubiquitous contrarian, Father John Misty), Crack-Up.

 

For starters, let’s consider Hitchhiker. Recorded between a collaborative outing with Stephen Stills (Long May You Run), and American Stars ‘n Bars (home to the perennial live favorite, “Like a Hurricane”), Hitchhiker was intended for release around the time of the best-selling Decade anthology—before some unimpressed execs at Warner/Reprise decided to scrap the project and concentrate their efforts on promoting Decade (which included one of the scrapped tracks, a Nixonian eulogy titled “Campaigner”). It is still somewhat unclear what prompted Young’s decision to release the material at this point in time, but it’s easy to speculate.

Taken as a record in its own right, Hitchhiker is that rare bird of archival resurrection: it actually has wings of its own, and one never finds oneself contemplating the dreaded (but all-too-common) response to such endeavors—”gee, maybe there’s a reason this one didn’t get picked the first time around…” Young has himself explained that the tracks on Hitchhiker were recorded in a single sitting, in a daze of alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine use. The recording reflects the hypnotic pull of its circumstances, but never betrays any real limitations they might have caused. Ultimately, Hitchhiker can (and should) be appreciated for what it is: a remarkably solid record from one of the highest watermarks in the career of a genuine musical legend. As far as this listener is concerned, the record deserves further appreciation as one of the most stripped-to-the-bone incarnations of Neil yet to be heard in recorded form. In a way, the album fills in the missing piece implied by the excellent live film and album, Rust Never Sleeps, which begins with a full solo acoustic set including many of the same songs (followed by a sharp transition to the raucous r’n’r of the Crazy Horse portion, all of which is captured on the single-LP release titled after the film; the live acoustic recordings can be found on the double-LP, Live Rust).

The previously unreleased ballad, “Give Me Strength” (with it’s aching couplet: “give me strength to move along / give me strength to realize she’s gone“), is alone worth the price of admission: the bumped microphone at the 3:11 mark serves as an effective reminder that the tracks were recorded and mixed live; a fact which one might well forget when under the intoxicating spell of a master storyteller. 41 years on from its initial recording, Young’s songs—and his vulnerably assertive voice—remain as vital and transformative as waves against a shoreline.

 

Speaking of which, the waves that swell and crash throughout the 55 gloriously open-ended minutes of Crack-Up deserve as much credit as its human authors for delivering onto us one of the year’s most flat-out gorgeous albums. In a way, the two records can serve as companion pieces: the former being an example of evenly structured human inquisitiveness, and this a vast, stretching canvas of wonder, soaking up as much of the big, weird world around it as possible. Though a definitive nightmare for year-end compilation CDs, the songs in Crack-Up are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard from this band; and their stature only grows with repeated spins.

As far as what the record is “about,” I haven’t the faintest clue, really. All I can say is that, each time I put it on, I find myself falling back under the spell of its mythical language and seemingly ancient melodies. And I am reluctant to take leave of its warm, distant embrace—for fear that when next I reach out for it, the waves will have washed it all away.

 

19. Masseduction – St. Vincent
(Loma Vista Recordings)

 

Following the relative disappointment of St. Vincent’s self-titled (and non-4AD-affiliated) 2014 LP, I approached this latest offering with open ears and ever-more open expectations. Put in perspective, St. Vincent had more than its fair share of redeeming moments, and its inability to hold a candle to the excellence permeating every note (and sadomasochistic squeal) of Strange Mercy ought not to be held against it unduly. (And in comparing my own assessment of these past two albums to the critical consensus, it would appear I am in the minority anyway; this coming from a fan who is most likely to reach for Actor when craving an Annie Clark fix). Fortunately for all of us, Masseduction presents a bold return to Clark’s gleefully perverse and melodically flawless form. Whereas her previous offering pushed the envelope somewhat tepidly by proposing “I prefer your love to Jesus,” this time she shoots straight for the surrealistic stars: “Nuns in stress position / Smokin’ Marlboros… Drinkin’ Manic Panic / Singin’ Boatman’s Call / Teenage, Christian virgins / Holdin’ out their tongues / Paranoid secretions / Fallin’ on basement rugs.” Praise be to the ghosts of Buñuel and Dalí—and praise be to Ms. Clark for conjuring them so effortlessly, and letting us eavesdrop on this extraterrestrial dialogue.

It is safe to say that Masseduction contains one of the most versatile and enchanting sets St. Vincent has yet released. Taking as its setting a technicolor asylum, in which the characters have either lost their minds over lost love, or lost their love over lost minds, the album finds Clark casting herself in the role of a queen dominatrix—making her rounds of the ward, alternately snapping the whip of her seductive guitar work, or laying her saintly hands on the keys of a lonely piano to console someone’s pain. Personally, I find the album’s most rewarding moments to lie predominantly in these quieter passages: songs like “New York” and “Happy Birthday, Johnny” sound deceptively simple, but on repeat listens reveal themselves to be extremely sophisticated ballads, dedicated to friends (fictional or actual) who are stranded in a world of loss and confusion.

As far as high points are concerned, it doesn’t get much higher than the title track and the irresistible hook: “I can’t turn off what turns me on.” It’s the kind of song that make one smack one’s own forehead and say, “why hasn’t this been done before?” Now, it has. And it delights me to no end—to see that the world is paying attention and giving Ms. Clark her proper due, by showering this record with all the acclaim and recognition it (and she) so clearly deserves. Though patriarchy may have emerged triumphant at the end of 2016, the patent leather-clad seductress who gave us this record of beautiful melodies and twisted riffs mopped the floor with it in 2017; then kindly invited it to kiss her ass. If in doubt, have another look at the jacket.

 

18. “Drunk” – Thundercat
(Brainfeeder)

 

Two years ago, the world took note of the name “Kendrick Lamar,” as his brilliant double-LP breakthrough To Pimp A Butterfly swiftly proceeded to influence everything from the national dialogue on race, to the recording sessions of David Bowie’s final album. Fewer people seemed to take note of another name credited on that album: the name of Thundercat, a virtuoso future-jazz-funk bassist who was at least partially responsible for three of that album’s finest tracks (“Wesley’s Theory,” “These Walls,” and “Complexion (A Zulu Love)”). In fact, that very same year found Thundercat releasing an EP of his own (The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam), to accompany the doube-LP opus he had released two years prior: the darkly ethereal and wonderfully strange Apocalypse.

2017 found Kendrick once again sweeping widespread acclaim with his awaited follow-up to Butterfly, the succinctly titled (but less succinctly constructed) Damn. And while this latest offering by the verbally agile rapper left me wanting to return to the more pointed and thought-provoking brilliance of its predecessor, the latest LP by Thundercat kept me on my toes. Appropriately titled “Drunk” (considering its often fragmentary nature), the music Thundercat continues to produce is funky, intelligent, and sometimes outright bizarre; as though Zappa had finally discovered the 1 beat. And he’s often damn funny, to boot.

The first hint that something a little different is happening in this guy’s universe is provided by the presence of Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins on backing vocals, in the out-of-this-world lead single “Show You the Way.” Or the presence of an ecstatic, intricately arranged jam titled “Jethro”—which cuts itself off after a mere minute and thirty-five seconds of perfection. To put it mildly, Thundercat has a beat of his own to march to, and it seems unlikely that anyone would be able to talk him into altering it. This could present problems down the road, but for now, the rapacious diversification of his endeavor is a wonderful thing to behold.

In addition to the titles highlighted in this write-up, I can also advise checking out “Them Changes,” “Walk On By (feat. Kendrick Lamar),” “Tokyo,” and the climactic, 4-minute odyssey into the drunken “Inferno;” but even when taken as a whole, there is something interesting and thoughtful going on in most every track on the album. (Which more than makes up for the lack of polish in certain sections, or the occasional redundancy.) I look forward to the next offering with great relish.

Domo arigato, Mr. Thunder-gato.

 

17. Time Killer – Lioness
(Magnaphone Records)

 

Lioness (an eleven-piece band out of Dayton, Ohio) are one of the most refreshingly open-ended and lively new acts I’ve heard in some time. And with this debut full-length, they secured a consistent slot in my rotation of new music this year. Their songs frequently call to my mind the hyper-eclecticism of Arthur Lee, but the perpetual idiosyncrasy of the band’s writing defies simple homage. While in “Get the Sparrows” they sound as they though could be scoring a neo-Western, “One Day” and “Sham Wow” are way more Beatles than Morricone; and whereas “Relations” (or “America’s Country Freedom Song”) might give the impression of an outtake from the last—and vastly underrated—Talking Heads album, the fantasy novel qualities permeating “Ebony the Lioness” would seem way more at home in a ’70s concept album. And let’s not forget the album closer, which could be described as a remake of C.S.N.Y.’s “Our House” with chord progressions stolen from a Rush song.

My attempts at encapsulating the variety of material on Time Killer likely do a disservice to the remarkable consistency of the record. Seeing as how the parameters are set as broadly as possible from the opening track (though frequently set within the playground of 1960s-1980s pop music tropes), it seems a testament to the band’s diligence—and their fully contained point of view—that everything in here sounds of a piece. I can only speculate as to what they’ll go on to do with all this brilliance.

 

16. Damage and Joy – The Jesus & Mary Chain
(Artificial Plastic)

 

Damage and Joy is nothing more or less than a gift to Jesus & Mary Chain fans. In keeping with the track record they’ve established over the past thirty-plus years, there’s never a whiff of trying to appease the critics, trying to win over a bigger audience, or trying for anything, really, other than expressing their usual medley of disappointed awe for life itself.

Back in July, I observed that Damage and Joy finds the band delivering “exactly what we’ve wanted—maybe even yearned for all these years” (with what we wanted being a new Jesus & Mary Chain album). Five months on, this assessment remains sound. The songs on this record have provided many hours of companionship and escape throughout this profoundly damaged year, and it was with great regret that I missed an opportunity to see the band perform live again at a small venue in Louisville this Fall; I suppose I’ll have to resign myself to the memory of an extraordinary performance I witnessed in Indianapolis, five years ago. I’d never before (and haven’t since) danced with such reckless abandon.

The somewhat maudlin cast of the JAMC sounds increasingly nostalgic with each passing year, but not in a derogatory sense. In actuality, the band have continually embraced new trends (including, on this record, a guest appearance by Sky Ferreira and tracks recorded on separate continents, shared via e-mail), and their very origins belied a sound that was at least three years ahead of the curve (with My Bloody Valentine finally catching up in ’88). Rather than rooting themselves in an effort to recreate a lost past—or, as is more commonly the case with nostalgia, a past that never actually happened—the Reid brothers have left a unique stamp on popular music, perpetually pointing back to the pioneers who uncovered the possibilities they’ve made a living off of (Phil Spector, Muddy Waters, the Shangri-Las, and Einstürzende Neubauten) while hitching their thumbs on a road to the future of pop.

Jim and William went on record early in their career, explaining how they strove to make music they wanted to buy, but couldn’t find in any of their local record bins. With seven incredibly solid studio albums under their belt now, one hopes they’ve achieved their goal; and surely, they should be able to wander into any record store now, on any continent, and stumble upon a copy of Psychocandy or Darklands. But more than this, they’ve succeeded in inculcating at least one generation (maybe two, if more millennials choose to tune in) to the taste of their own deliriously direct, shamelessly melodic notion of hit music.

May we go forth and prosper in the fields they have acrimoniously sown for us.

 

15. 50 Song Memoir – The Magnetic Fields
(Nonesuch)

 

In March of this year, I seized upon the tremendous opportunity to see Stephin Merritt and his current incarnation of the Magnetic Fields perform his 50 Song Memoir, in its entirety, over the course of two nights at the Lincoln Theater (in Washington D.C). I’d refrained from listening to the album in its entirety up until this point, though I couldn’t resist sampling some of the advance singles, including the exceptional “’74: No” and “’83: Foxx and I” (the former, an ode to the absurdities of assorted theisms; the latter, a loving tribute to the pioneer of post-punk synth futurism, John Foxx). I find it difficult to put into words just how extraordinarily moving, hilarious, and heartbreaking those performances were. Just as he accomplished 18 years prior, with the surprising crossover hit of 69 Love Songs, Merritt has managed to condense so much of life’s tragicomic essence into the fifty vignettes collected in this set.

There are many layers to unpeel in this remarkable, entirely unique set of records (five in total, ten tracks per): the fact that Merritt was approached by a label executive with the idea to compose a musical memoir, and that he accepted the commission, seems entirely at odds with the assembly-line process of your average pop record; at the same time, is it really all that different?

It’s one of many big questions tackled by this prolific, sardonic chanteuse-stuck-in-a-bear’s-body in 50 Song Memoir. Other questions include (but are not limited to): How to distill an entire year of one’s life into a 3-minute capsule? How to truthfully capture the alternately eventful and uneventful passages of one’s life, from one track to the next, without ending up with a slew of boring throwaways? Most pressingly: what to write about years one through three? Part of the album’s reward for the listener, is the process of discovering Merritt’s answers to each of these questions; a greater reward lies in the songs themselves.

Stephin Merritt has given unto the world many a great song: from “Born on a Train,” to “Strange Powers,” to “Why I Cry,” to “The Book of Love” (and “Papa Was a Rodeo”), to “It’s Only Time,” to “You Must Be Out Of Your Mind,” to “Andrew In Drag,” every Magnetic Fields offering has featured at least one (and usually several more) song(s) worthy of permanent inclusion in the American songbook. When Peter Gabriel observed that Merritt was one of the greatest songwriters alive today (an observation that prompted his own gorgeous rendering of “The Book of Love”), there wasn’t so much as a hint of hyperbole. It is possible some listeners will be underwhelmed by the heightened idiosyncrasy of the songs contained herein: afterall, it is unlikely that many (or anyone, for that matter) will relate directly to songs about a cat named Dyonisus; wanting to be reincarnated as a cockroach; seeing Jefferson Airplane as a five-year old; moving to different parts of the country on a bi-annual basis, or overly heated debates with an ethics professor. This only serves to render the relatability of these songs even more noteworthy. For while you may not find anything as direct (or hopelessly romantic) as “Why I Cry” in this collection, it is more-than-likely you’ll surprise yourself with how much of this you might somehow identify with. The amount of insight into the human condition, contained within his hilarious love letter to Grace Slick (“’70: They’re Killing Children Over There”) or his envelope-pushing tribute to sadomasochistic codependency (“’04: Cold-Blooded Man”) is more than astonishing: it’s inspiring.

With 50 Song Memoir, Stephin Merritt & co. have succeeded in delivering a work as deeply eccentric as it is inherently popular; as kaleidoscopic as it is specific; as individual as it is universal. In the closing number, “’15: Somebody’s Fetish,” Merritt mumbles about how “everybody is / somebody’s fetish“—including his own bearish self. It may just be the most transcendent and hopeful line he’s ever penned.

 

14. If All I Was Was Black – Mavis Staples
(Anti-)

 

There are many great singers alive in the world today, but there is only one Mavis Staples. As detailed in the 2015 HBO documentary, Mavis!, the former Staple Singer has led a remarkably rich and adventurous life: from her days on the club circuit with Pops & co., to the family’s growing involvement in the civil rights movement, to the first faltering steps towards a solo career. More recently, Mavis has found new life among the unlikely likes of Jeff Tweedy and M. Ward—both of whom have lent a hand to writing and producing some excellent records for the artist on the Anti- imprint. It would seem that her long-overdue moment to shine has finally arrived; in a reflection of the music industry’s unfortunate blindness to history and racial oppression, it took a couple white guys to get the world to return their attention to the profound voice of a black woman, who (like Sister Rosetta Tharpe before her) opened our ears to the purity of song in the first place. After all, with her timeless delivery of those simple, powerful lines (“I know a place / Ain’t nobody cryin’…“), many a fledgling musician found their Rosetta Stone; their musical raison d’être. Heard in hindsight, “I’ll Take You There” barely constitutes a song—at least, not in the now-customary sense of the word. There’s call and response, but no real counterpoint; a fragment of a verse, paired with an even shorter fragment of a chorus (and a bunch of “help me now”s, thrown in for good measure). But within this 3 minute fragment of musical heaven, life itself unfolds: revealed unto the listener in all its funky glory.

It’s been one year since the release of Livin’ On a High Note; a refreshing collection of M. Ward-produced recordings, including original song contributions by everyone from Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), to Laura Veirs and Neko Case; to Ben Harper, Son Little, and Nick Cave. In between, there was a special tribute concert (I’ll Take You There: An All-Star Concert Celebration) and a little-heard, sensational single with Arcade Fire (“I Give You Power“). At 78, Mavis might be showing some expected signs of slowing down physically, but her productivity rate—and her engagement with contemporary music—is as active as ever. And her latest album with Jeff Tweedy at the helm, If All I Was Was Black, is easily the best one they’ve done together (yet).

There’s often a perception of effortlessness in the songs that Mavis sings: they seem to flow out of her like a rolling river; cascading over ancient rocks, and returning to the vast sea of wisdom from which they emerged. This organic quality is at its most refined and consistent across the ten tracks of this latest offering, which moves at its own deliberate pace, and avoids the hasty trends of pop music recording (which have imposed themselves upon the singer’s previous efforts to convey her natural grace and gravitas. Not entirely surprising—for an industry that believes itself to have evolved beyond such qualities, without fully appreciating them in the first place).

The title track (which appears to have borrowed its lead riff from Neil Young’s “Walk On”) neatly sums up the themes scattered across the album, but doesn’t infringe upon their complexity in the slightest. During a build-up to the song’s redeeming chorus, Mavis insists that: “If all I was was black / Looking at you, you might look past / All the love I give / I’ve got natural gifts / Got a perspective / Might make your shift.” At last, the singer declares simply, without a hint of pretense: “I’ve got love / I’ve got love.” No hashtag. No narcissism. No indignation. Just pure song: genuine expression.

There is so much to be inspired by in Mavis’s story; so much sustenance to be had from the wonderful recordings she’s blessed the world with, across more than half of a century of musical activity. What I personally find most rewarding about any album of Mavis’s (and this one in particular) is her unparalleled ability to contain multiple perspectives, all within the intense emotion and direct power of her voice. It’s the sort of directness that respects realism and idealism in equal measure: aware of the tremendous healing power it is capable of, but also sensitive to the knowledge that some wounds are beyond healing. There’s an especially affecting moment for this listener, during the album’s final track (“All Over Again”): around 40 seconds in, as she describes “the stars all closing in,” with Tweedy making a surprising transition to a tightly diminished chord at the same time that Mavis strikes the saddest note on the entire record. And then, a mutual release—back to the major tone of the song’s origin, with the hymnal chorus over top: “I’d do it / All over again.” And just as she did 45 years ago, when she promised to take us “there,” the entirety of life unfolds, in the most startlingly bright, darkly contoured shades. And my heart is filled beyond capacity.

 

13. Reflection – Brian Eno
(Warp/Oval)

 

A new Brian Eno record is rarely (if ever) anything less than a gift to music-lovers. Whether in ambient or vocal form, the work produced by this beloved thinker, innovator, composer, and reluctant (but marvelous) singer has enthralled this writer for many years—since his first discover of the second side of Bowie / Low. Over the past two decades, the artist has rather steadily seesawed between additional collaborative endeavors (with collaborators both veteran and new, including David Byrne, Karl Hyde, Rick Holland, and Jon Hopkins) and solo vocal/ambient pursuits. After last year’s lovely crossover, The Ship—in which vocal and and instrumental realms were blurred more bravely than ever before—the artist shows no signs of stopping; for this year, he’s added another two entries to his canon.

On New Year’s Day, 2017, Brian Eno released Reflection—his first proper ambient record since 2012’s Lux, and his most ambitious to date: in addition to traditional physical formats (vinyl and CD), the album was made available as a generative app, which would offer up new variations of the recording with each changing season. Though intrigued by the generative app, and impressed by the conceptual and technological prowess involved in its development, I found myself more drawn to the traditional format. After all, this is how I’ve come to know and obsess over every other Eno record, and why should this be any different?

As far as differences go, Reflection is very much alike his finest ambient albums to date (specifically, Ambient 1: Music for Airports and Ambient 4: On Land) and very much something else. Whereas previous efforts have been seemingly free-form, repeat listening often reveals the ways in which the artist limited himself to fit the format in which he was recording (namely, long-playing records). And while he was able to include thirty minutes of music per sidedue to the minimal instrumentation of each track, and the minimal amount of grooves needed to engrave the musicthe notion of expanding a piece beyond the time constraints of a single format, while still respecting the composer’s touch, was something difficult to execute with available technology. Up until now, that is.

Although I have only heard fragments of the generative app on-line, it isn’t terribly difficult to envision the infinite possibilities the sounds on this record contain for variation’s sake. It is probably safe to say that, depending on your personal inclination, you will either find Reflection terribly boring or fantastically hypnotic. (It is also possible to feel a little bit of each extreme.) The often somber, verging on menacing sound palette of the album harkens back to the first ominous strains of “Lizard Point;” in a way, it is possible to read Reflection as a long-delayed follow-up to On Land, insofar as it represent an even more distilled evolution of that album’s palette. And with the app continually responding to the curated, hand-crafted parameters of its composer, the artist seems to have finally achieved a total synthesis of chance happening and intentional sound design. For what it’s worth, it all sounds as brilliant as it is.

Further listening: the artist’s second release of 2017, Finding Shore, finds him working with a new collaborator, Tom Rogerson (who beckons from the English countryside of Suffolk), and creating some occasionally stunning moments of melodic ambience. Nothing as revolutionary as Reflection, perhaps, but hardly any cause for complaint.

 

 

12. Memories Are Now – Jesca Hoop
(SubPop)

 

Jesca Hoop has consistently intrigued and perplexed me, throughout a decade of folksy singer-songwriter recordings: it often sounds to me as though her albums are somehow wholly conventional, and totally out-of-touch at the same time. Though my occasional dumbfoundedness is (clearly) more my problem than hers, it pleases me to state that with this latest LP, I finally got it. Following on the heels of another beautiful album, Love Letter For Fire (written and recorded with Sam Beam a.k.a. Iron & Wine), Memories Are Now is a quietly—and sometimes, loudly majestic ode to the powerful frailty of the mind/spirit continuum.

The record opens with the disarmingly assertive title track, in which the artist declares: “I was not there, I won’t be there / I’m only here / Memories are now / I can carry this weight, I can stand up tall / Look you in the eye / You haven’t broken me yet / You don’t scare me to death / You don’t scare me at all though you try / I’ve lived enough life / I’ve earned my stripes / With my knife in the ground, this is mine.” Anyone who isn’t convinced better get out of the way, as she proceeds into her hymn of resiliency in the face of adversity: “Clear the way, I’m coming through / No matter what you say / I’ve got work to be doing / If you’re not here to help, go find some other life to ruin / Let me show you the door.

From here on, all bets are off, and the album proceeds to yield one four-minute sliver of fortune after another. In the second sliver, “The Lost Sky” (one of my personal favorites), the narrator addresses a fallen lover: “The bitter burn of a signal run cold / You became the dark star and left me all alone / A love like ours comes ’round once in a lifetime / Sending you a lifeline.” All throughout, the heightened emotional transparency of the lyrics is polished further—and brought into fine relief through the naked confidence of their delivery. Arguably the most powerful moment in the record lies in the sliver she saved for last: a magnificent marble of incisive writing, entitled “The Coming,” in which the singer single-handedly tackles the entirety of her life’s spiritual conditioning (and un-conditioning) in six minutes flat. That she manages to hold this momentum-generating revelation back until this far in the record—then walks away from the mic, after repeating the song’s opening thesis—is a bold statement, indeed: “Jesus turned in his crown of thorns today / And announced to the Earth and the heavens the end of his reign / He took a seat next to the Devil and said, ‘I need a new name’ / And the coming never came.

Perhaps most notable of all, none of my foreshadowing for the experience of this record is likely to have any diminishing impact on the reader’s own take. Because Memories Are Now ably represents one of the most sought-after qualities of a good record: something so elemental—so rooted in the energy of its creation and development—that it rejects simple analysis at every turn. In a time when simple analysis has become the stock and trade for many a weary civilian, an alternative is most welcome.

 

11. Room 29 – Jarvis Cocker & Chilly Gonzales
(Deutsche Grammophon)

 

The liner notes to the new album by Jarvis Cocker (Pulp) and accomplished pianist Chilly Gonzales read as follows: “Room 29 is a hotel room situated on the 2nd floor of the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, Los Angeles. Amongst other things, it contains a baby-grand piano. This record is the life-story of the room as told by the piano and one of the hotel guests.”

With Cocker playing the hotel guest and Gonzales playing the piano (quite adeptly, I might add), Room 29 spins a series of tales, both tall and quite small. Considering the notorious reputation of the Chateau Marmont, and the many celebrities liked to its history, it may come as somewhat of a surprise that most of the tales err on the smaller side (mentions of Jean Harlow and Howard Hughes aside; even then, this is likely the least scandalous stories you’re likely to hear about Howard Hughes in a hotel room). The quiet atmosphere is established early on, during the title track itself—in which the guest is welcomed into the room, and takes a mental seismograph of its energies (and past occupants). With much of the music sounding like never-before-heard Satie works, I would find it rather difficult to not be seduced immediately by this strange (and damn near-perfect) little record.

Following two fairly solid solo albums (the first one produced Graham Sutton and the second with Steve Albini), Room 29 finds Jarvis sounding better than ever before; at times channeling his inner Scott Walker to remarkable effect (such as in “A Trick Of the Light” and “Tearjerker”), at others sounding like a more lyric-oriented Jon Brion (such as in the pun-drenched and somewhat cynical little ditty, “The Other Side”). What I most likely love best about the record is its (seemingly) totally relaxed approach to a rather tautly structured concept. Although the songs are mostly built and sequenced with a sophisticated sort of symmetry, you might not tell it right off by the sound of these two. Which isn’t to say they ever sound sloppy; but rather, they sound so good together, it’s as though they’re never even trying.

One of the more innovative tracks on the album, “Howard Hughes Under the Microscope,” finds Gonzales accompanying an audio excerpt of an interview with David Thomsen (facilitated by Cocker, though his own voice is tastefully absent from the edited conversation). In “A Trick of the Light,” Cocker and Gonzales—backed by a full orchestra—thoughtfully (and rather movingly) deconstruct the illusion upon which cinema is established: a flickering series of stills, generating movement in the eye and the mind of the beholder, but never achieving the pulse of life itself. Throughout every song on Room 29, it is life itself with which the artists are most concerned. This quality, more than other, presents the most plausible key to the album’s total success.

 

10. async – Ryuichi Sakamoto
(Milan Records)

 

Many of the records on this list have been a part of my life for months now: their contents have replayed themselves, over and again, in a multitude of formats (vinyl records, MP3s on my iPod, mix CDs on road trips). async is not one of these records. Though it was released back in March, I did not acquire myself a copy for listening until just recently, when a friend reminded me of its existence. I remain grateful for this friend’s reminder, and even moreso for the music contained on this record, which is some of the most beautiful work I’ve ever set my ears to.

Following an extended hiatus (marked by the composer’s fight with throat cancer), async emerged—much like Eno’s Reflection—as a sort of carefully curated bonsai plant. Which isn’t to say its arrangement is impeccably tailored; if anything, async takes a cue from the literal meaning of its title, and revels in the messy possibilities of sound collage. What it makes of these possibilities, however, could hardly be more elegant and specific. Containing everything from multilingual spoken word extracts from Paul Bowles’s literary masterpiece, The Sheltering Sky (adapted for the screen in 1990 by Bernardo Bertolucci, whom the composer cites in his liner notes to have become like a brother); to David Sylvian reciting a poem dedicated to Andrei Tarkovsky by his father, Arseny; to found sound recordings collected by the artist over many years, the album is—much like a bonsai plant—the product of both careful deliberation and an openness to the accidental.

Beyond this sort of synopsis, words fail me in trying to describe the immense beauty and sadness of this record. All I can say is that I’ve never been moved to tears as swiftly as I was upon first hearing the Tarkovsky/Sylvian piece, “Life, Life,” which brought me to my knees—overcome by the power of its words, the understatement of its delivery, and the emotional precision of its instrumentation. I’ve summoned the bravery to revisit the track several additional times, but I have not yet succeeded in avoiding a recurrence of my initial response.

 

9. Hippopotamus – Sparks
(BMG Music)

 

There were many times during 2017 that Hippopotamus stood out as my foremost contender for album of the year. And if I were to remake this list on a different day, under different circumstances, there’s a chance it might yet. Regardless of charting positions (though I will have you know, Hippopotamus broke the top 10 on the weekend of its release), Sparks have yet to give us a bad record, and this is one of the best ones yet. From the opening piano chords and openly dismissive lyrics of “Probably Nothing,” to the fading funhouse sounds of “A Little Bit Like Fun,” the record tells us essentially everything we need to know about people.

There are so many fine qualities to admire about Hippopotamus, but in keeping with the theme of this list, it’s the clarity of the work that stands out most of all. In the clearly enunciated prose of songs like “What the Hell Is It This Time?” (in which the Lord looks down on all of his needy minions, bemoaning aloud of their bothers and sorrows) and “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)” (in which the lead character—or characters—engage in an inner dialogue about the merits and deficits of sentimentality), the verbose and well-read Mael brothers have hit a bona fide stride: they ride this wave of inspiration from beginning to end, with seemingly every moment as absurd, hilarious, and truthful as the one before it. Take the title track, for instance: in which Russell narrates a surrealist nursery rhyme about a swimming pool with everything from a Bosch painting, to a VW Microbus, to a snorkeling Titus Andronicus in it. The listener will likely find themselves questioning whether there will be another verse, after having heard what appears to be every word with the titular suffix (“-us”) available in the English dictionary; when he mentions the additional presence of “a woman with an abacus,” you might just be tempted to applaud.

As droll as the song-stories contained on Hippopotamus might seem on paper, the now-trademark playful gestalt of the Maels carries everything to a higher level than face value. In “Unaware,” the singer warns the protagonist “Don’t turn that corner / Stay unaware of it all;” in “Bummer,” he takes on the sycophantic displays of emotion known to accompany the funerals of famous individuals: “You deserve something more, but they go through the motions / They have seen on TV / People of majesty who can sum up a life with a phrase / They don’t know you.” And in the gobsmackingly perfect anthem to reluctant co-dependency, “I Wish You Were Fun,” a lover explains to his partner that: “I love how you run / With such a determined look, at that / I shouldn’t let it phase me at all, but I’m just plain old dumb / I wish you were fun.” It’s the sort of insight that takes years of curmudgeonly brooding—followed by years of reflectively distilling human neuroses to their innermost core—to put it all so succinctly.

 

8. Other – Alison Moyet
(Cooking Vinyl)

 

I find it somehow appropriate that Hippopotamus should be followed immediately by Other on this list. Seeing as how Alison Moyet’s latest could be read as a more emotionally intelligent (and vocally unrestrained) response to the testosterone-inflected bookishness of the Mael brothers, they ought to make for a thoughtful back-to-back listening experience.

Other is an amazing record (and a beautiful work of musical art), and I can only hope enough people pay attention to take note for future generations. Of all the solo records I’ve heard to date from Ms. Moyet, this is the one in which her musical accompaniment appears to have caught up most effectively to her vernacular. With former Madonna producer Guy Sigsworth (Music) at the helm, Moyet’s complex and multi-layered songs have met their match, and the rewards are palpable in the full-bodied likes of “Reassuring Pinches” and “April 10th”—the latter containing the artist’s first spoken word contribution, that I’m aware of (I do hope there is more to follow…). Moreover, Moyet’s unique strain of logophilia finds its clearest expression to date in “I Germinate” and, most notably, “The English U.” (And yes: it is an ode to a secondary vowel.)

The most essential and unforgettable song on the record, however, is the one bearing the album’s namesake. In “Other,” Moyet paints one of the saddest, most finely contoured and luxuriously phrased portraits of life outside the accepted. The chorus: “And nothing touching me / Nothing touching me.” I get chills just thinking about it.

 

7. Twin Peaks: Music from the Limited Event Series – Various Artists & Angelo Badalamenti / Windswept – Johnny Jewel / Anthology Resource Vol. 1: △△ – Dean Hurley
(Rhino / Italians Do It Better / Sacred Bones)

 

An achievement so great that it’s practically defied categorization (is it a television show, a film, or something else altogether?), Twin Peaks: The Return was one of the most consistently rewarding developments of 2017. Although it goes without saying that the series could not have first existed without the inspired genius of David Lynch and Mark Frost, music has always played a crucial role in the world of Twin Peaks; and its most recent chapters were no different, in this regard.

Released shortly in advance of the “Limited Series Event” premiere on Showtime, the reissued soundtrack albums to Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me had already become Saturday morning regulars: the perfect companions to a damn fine cup of coffee. Little did I predict how much the music in these new episodes—including at least one surprise guest performance at the end of each airing—would pull me in; keeping me awake at night and continually returning me to the space of Lynch’s and Frost’s making. There was so much new music, in fact, that it couldn’t even be contained within one album: spread over two double-LP soundtracks, a single-LP score (by guest composer Johnny Jewel), and an extended play collection of ambient tracks by recurring collaborator Dean Hurley, the soundscapes of Twin Peaks: The Return are diverse, but phenomenally cohesive as well. And while some may challenge the notion of four separate releases as a single album entry, I should counter that the collective impact of the music is what drew me to bask in every corner of the program’s consistently enthralling sound collage. In a sense, the collected music of this medium-transcending work is a work in-and-of-itself: a compilation by Lynch himself, for which specific ingredients have been hand-selected to produce a certain flavor.

Obviously, this flavor includes the unforgettable refrain by Angelo Badalamenti, that gorgeous Julee Cruise ballad (“The World Spins”), and another unfathomably gorgeous rendering by Rebekah Del Rio (this one an original, titled “No Stars;” Del Rio previously contributed her Spanish-language remake of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” to Mulholland Dr., in one of that film’s most memorable sequences). But in addition to the usual suspects, we have the cinematic, power chord-driven propulsion of singer-songwriter Lissie; the dilettantish synth samba of Au Revoir Simone; an updated recording of one truly incredible Sharon Van Etten song (featuring Jonathan Meiburg, of Shearwater, on organ); a new Nine Inch Nails song; Shawn Colvin doing Elvis; some ZZ Top, and a barroom stomper performed by David Lynch’s own son. And that’s to say nothing of the Johnny Jewel contributions, which are scattered throughout both of the Rhino-distributed soundtracks and the Windswept LP, distributed on Jewel’s own imprint. Of these, the crown jewel is most definitely the Chromatics song, “Shadow” (originally released as a stand-alone single in 2015). In addition to the title at the #1 spot on this list, this song is what I listened to the most in 2017.

 

The most significant thing about the music from Twin Peaks: The Return was, for me, its continual reminder to the listener, of the possibilities for creating a portal to another world through the phenomenon of sound. Just as Lynch succeeded in bending the time-space continuum (before throwing it out the window altogether) over the course of this year’s 18 new episodes, the songs that provided the backdrop for these episodes have the ability to open up entire worlds of their own. And unlike a nostalgia fetishist (think Tarantino, or Wes Anderson) who struggles to respect the multitude of different uses a given song might lend itself toward, Lynch has never allowed his work to get in the way of the music he chooses. Instead, his work is an on-going synthesis: a fusion of sight and sound, betraying an obvious wonder for the untold possibilities of the universe, while preserving a specific point of view and a consistent tonality. He is arguably the greatest living artist in the world today.

 

6. Pure Comedy – Father John Misty
(SubPop)

 

Pure Comedy prompted a rather extensive blog entry earlier this year, and I feel a tad reluctant to say anything else on its behalf. I suppose I can add that, after seeing Tillman perform this material live on stage, backed by his stellar touring band, my suspicion that this was a record every bit as good as I Love You, Honeybear (and in certain ways, an infinitely better one) was convincingly reinforced. Also, take note of the additional percussion and production contributions by Gavin Bryars: if Tillman continues down this exploratory road he’s been walking for five years now, the sky and his own ego may well be the only limits to what he could accomplish.

 

5. No Plan – David Bowie
(ISO/Columbia)

 

Those who know me well might presume that my only motive for including the final David Bowie EP (a simple four-track offering, titled after its closing track) was to seize one final opportunity to champion new music by the recently departed Bard of Art-pop. And truth be told, this certainly played a part in my decision to highlight No Plan as one of the finest releases this year (despite the fact that all of this material was previously included on a companion CD to the Original Cast Recording of the off-Broadway, Man Who Fell to Earth-inspired musical, Lazarus—in which these same songs are performed the show’s protagonist, Thomas Jerome Newton). Beyond my running sorrow for the loss of a near-peerless musical legend, however, the music on this EP has been instrumental to my resiliency in a year marked by domestic and international horrors, natural disasters, and a bevy of incrementally worsening man-made problems.

Though all four of these songs are exceptional and affecting in their own respective ways, the title track has easily held the most prominent place in my aching heart. Featuring one of the most flat-out gorgeous vocals the artist ever recorded during his time on Earth, “No Plan” is beyond stunning. Many critics and talking heads were quick to comment, following the artist’s death and his release of the monumental Blackstar, that this album clearly represented a sort of self-penned epitaph. While there is much to back up this interpretation (including the lyrics to “Lazarus,” which doubles as opener to the No Plan EP), I find it easier to read Blackstar as the final novel in a widely lauded, well-loved writer’s repertoire; which would render No Plan the calculated post-script (to a life known for consistently transcending any kind of pre-conception).

In “No Plan,” the artist enters into earshot crooning the beautiful lines: “Here, there’s no music here / I’m lost in streams of sound / Here, am I nowhere now? / No plan / Wherever I may go / Just where / Just there / I am.” Between the finely chiseled verses that remain, the chorus/bridge inserts itself (allowing itself to be clearly identified as having been recorded in a separate take): “All of the things that are my life / My desires, my beliefs, my moods / Here is my place without a plan.” While the EP was released on what would have been Bowie’s 70th birthday, there was a far more expansive offering bearing his name by year’s end: with the highly-anticipated, authorized box set (A New Career In a New Town) compiling the beloved Berlin trilogy (plus Stage and Scary Monsters), fans were given a juxtaposition of the artist’s dying wisdom, with the restless wandering of his early thirties. It’s the sort of thematic intersection that cannotor at least, ought not to be planned; and that makes it all the more noteworthy.

In addition to the musical releases bearing Bowie’s name in 2017, there was one other final, extremely special tributein the form of Phillip Jeffries, a character Bowie had played in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, reprised one last time in the show’s Return. Portrayed as a large steel canister, with a spout of steam pouring out of its head, Jeffries/Bowie provides Special Agent Dale Cooper with coordinates to some sort of inter-dimensional portalsetting the stage for the show’s stunning finale. Although Bowie was not alive when the show went into filming, and was unable to make a filmed contribution himself, I gather the impression that he would approve of the treatment. After all, is this not what the artist left behind as his most lasting of legacies: coordinates to unknown dimensions; a portal to possibilities never before realized?

No Plan closes with the artist drawing out the breath needed to deliver his final line: “This is not quite yet.” For better or worse, we are left to fill in the remaining canvas.

 

4. Slowdive – Slowdive
(Dead Oceans)

 

It strikes me in looking at this list that there were few traditional “band” LPs released this year to really seize me by the ears. And of the ones that stood out, none hold a candle to the organic perfection coursing through the self-titled return LP by these English shoe-gazers. The band has clearly put their twenty-two year hiatus to good useseeing as how the outcome of this most recent session is, easily, the best thing they’ve ever produced.

It begins with the aptly titled “Slomo,” in which the band drifts their way into the atmosphere, swelling to a grand finale of dueling guitar melodies, shakers, ambient textures, and soaring vocals by Neil and Rachel. Over the course of the subsequent seven songs (collectively, a perfect volume of dream pop), the band continues to ebb and flow in a variety of inter-related directions: from the Brit-pop-inflected “Star Roving,” to the downbeat majesty and winding bassline in “Sugar For the Pill,” to the apocalyptic piano balladry of “Falling Ashes.” There may not quite be “something for everyone” on here, but anyone who can’t find something to latch onto here probably isn’t worth getting to know as well as this record.

There’s little more I can say to champion this crown jewel in the band’s already-accomplished discography, but I do feel compelled to say a few words in support of the album’s shining moment. A playful (and highly skilled) sample of the band’s understated virtuosity, “No Longer Making Time” could be presented as a masterclass in smart pop songwriting and production. The interplay between Nick Chaplin’s subtly refined bass line and Neil’s open-ended guitar lead, bound together by the laid-back thrust of Simon Scott’s backbeat and a flawlessly harmonized set of lead vocals, presents a necessary and revitalizing counterpoint to the overstated (and often entirely unwarranted) bombast of most charting rock bands. With a consistent impression of finality imprinted throughout, the band has essentially succeeded in eulogizing their own bygone approach to the medium of pop-rock; an approach that has been symmetrically observed by My Bloody Valentine, and has only left a handful of inadequate imitators scattered in the dust. With the recent announcement made by Kevin Shields, that a new MBV offering lies around the corner, maybe they will have spoken too soon.

 

 

3. Dark Matter – Randy Newman
(Nonesuch)

 

Randy Newman is the sort of songwriter who comes along without a real precedent, and is likely to leave without a successor. Though his work has always harkened back to the great American songbook, and his ancestry betrays a natural proclivity for music composition (three of his uncles were Hollywood film-score composers), there’s a singularity to Newman’s perspective—and the continuously nimble workings of his musical mind—that stands and falls entirely on its own terms. If ever a musical artist has embodied the Groucho Marx ethos (“I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member”), it’s Randy: and it’d be difficult to argue against the theory that we are better off, as a species, for his contribution to the human discourse.

Released just one year after his completion of the top-notch, 3-part anthology (The Randy Newman Songbook: Vols. 1-3), but nearly a decade after his last album of new material (Harps and Angels), Dark Matter is easily one of the songwriter’s boldest, most heavily nuanced achievements. Often calling to mind the wide-ranging and dexterously subversive approach he applied (with comparable success) in Sail Away and Good Old Boys, Newman’s latest is a condensation and an expansion of everything he has done to date. In “Putin,” he blends the populism of “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)” with the cynicism of “Political Science,” and leaves us rolling in the aisles (“What if the Kurds got in the way? / Hey! Kurds and way, curds and whey!“). In “Brothers,” he invites us to eavesdrop on a hypothetical conversation between Bobby and Jack Kennedy (circa the Cuban missile crisis), and somehow winds up championing the carnal talents of Celia Cruz. In “The Great Debate,” the album’s ambitious, eight-minute deliberation between every politico-religious faction on the planet, he pulls off something that may never have been accomplished before in song: a multi-dimensional one-man play, offering a simple resolution to all the world’s problems (“I’ll take Jesus every time!“), and backed by a full gospel choir. Kinda like the first episode of Cop Rock, only better. (And I know what you’re thinking: That’s not possible. Just trust me on this one).

Upon first hearing the album in its entirety, I experienced a mild sense of disappointment. Which is understandable, considering that one is bound to set an unreasonably high bar for the possibilities of a new Randy Newman album. But after getting over the hump of what I had hoped Dark Matter might sound like, I found myself beyond-satisfied with the reality of its offerings; in a sense, this very paradigm-shift has been a reoccurring message at the core of Newman’s work. The shift is pronounced explicitly during “The Great Debate,” when a scientist is called upon to explain the concept of “dark matter” to the rest of humanity, only to have his largely inaccessible explanation shut down by a baser pragmatism: “Let me get this straight / You don’t know what it is / You don’t know where it is / And we can’t get any / Put that to the one side / Let’s put the Lord, faith, eternity / Whatever on the other side / Show ’em, Vance” (followed by a repetition of the consensus: “I’ll take Jesus every time!“) Here, in a neat reversal of the premise at the heart of “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind),” God is portrayed as a byproduct of mankind’s own lowered expectations: a fallback for a species that continually fails to confront, headfirst, the untapped potential of its own constructs (e.g. democracy, education, family…).

The album is bookended by my favorite of its nine tracks, “On the Beach”—in which the album’s narrator (perhaps Randy himself?) pays tribute to a classmate who dropped out of school in order to live out the life of a beach bum. The song calls to mind the films made by Woody Allen in his prime (Radio Days, in particular), as well as channeling the same inspired observationalism which permeated Land of Dreams. Though every verse and rhyme is a gem in its own right, my hands-down favorite is this simple ode to the bum’s resiliency: “Willie saw acid / Willie saw fear / Willie saw freebase / But Willie’s still here.” Rarely has the old adage, “they don’t write ’em like they used to,” seemed more apropos, than when comparing Newman’s economy of words to the blather of what passes for insight in many present-day circles.

In addition to the spectacular “Sonny Boy” (one of the finest singles of his entire oeuvre, and a more deserving contender than “Putin” for the forthcoming awards season), two mournful ballads, “Lost Without You” and “Wandering Boy,” round out this fine collection of material in a deeply affecting manner. In the former (which could easily be interpreted as a 40-years-on epilogue to Johnny Cutler’s Birthday—the original concept for the Good Old Boys LP), a dying woman’s wish to her children is that they respect and care for the alcoholic husband she’s about to leave behind. In the latter song (which also closes the album), an unidentified man at a party pleads for the welfare of a child who disappeared in the harbor many years ago. After all these years of alternately pulling our leg and our heartstrings, Newman hasn’t lost his knack for bringing us to tears with these humbling reminders of what we all share, and what we all have to lose.

Most reassuringly of all, perhaps, Randy’s leg-pulling abilities are as astute and absurd as ever: from another jab at those who are diminutive in stature (“Stand up sir, what’s your- / You are standing, forgive me“), to one of the darkest jokes yet presented in response to widespread police brutality (“So if you see a uniform / Do exactly what they say / Or make a run for it / I’m only kidding with ya“), this most American of satirists can still teach us all a thing or two about ourselvesthrough the healing powers of humor and melancholy. It’ll be a somber day, when we are forced to part ways with him.

 

2. Rest – Charlotte Gainsbourg
(Because Music)

 

Charlotte Gainsbourg’s eagerly awaited third full-length musical release (her fourth overall, including the half-live/half-studio recorded Stage Whisper) is the most convincing fulfillment of the musical promise bestowed by her late father. And in its own way, Rest could be argued as superior to any of Serge’s completed works: for it demonstrates a level of emotional clarity (melded with the family’s trademark intellectual shrewdness) that her father only ever dared to mock in others, having lacked the natural proclivity for displaying it in himself. (Though he came closest in the albums he wrote for Jane Birkin, following their tumultuous break-up.)

Simply put, Rest is a masterpiece. That Charlotte should have the natural aptitude for conveying what she conveys on this record, coupled with her Madonna-like astuteness for selecting the right collaborators with which to maximize the power of her words (including SebastiAn, Paul McCartney, and Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo), should offer all the proof needed to validate her potential as more than just another actor-turned-musical-dilettante. In fact, my first response to Rest—following the initial, flabbergasting wonder it inducedwas a longing to revisit her previous recordings, and reassess them as predecessors to this breakthrough moment. And lo and behold, it was all there from the outset: in the delicate beauty and timeless arrangements of “5:55” and “The Songs That We Sing;” the eccentricity and exoticism of “Me and Jane Doe” and “La Collectionneuse;” the concentrated pop precision of “Jamais.” With this latest achievement, she has magnified the very qualities that made her records worth listening to from the outset, and has essentially pulled the rug out from underneath her detractors. For anyone who fails to even remotely resonate with something on this record must either be dead or devoid of feeling.

I present, as Exhibit A, the second album track (“Lying With You”). A tribute to her father, the title boldly flaunts the double-to-triple-meaning effect, which Serge himself was so widely renowned for. But she doesn’t stop there: as she recounts fragments of memories featuring her father, the informed listener is bound to hear everything against the unforgettable images of “Lemon Incest” and Charlotte Forever, in which the father-daughter duo paraded their relationship before the public through a fictional pose of moral turpitude. More than just reveling in double-entendre, “Lying With You” is one of the most affecting and loving musical tributes I believe I’ve ever heard. The music video (one of several the artist has herself directed in support of the album) shows Charlotte wandering through the infamous Gainsbourg house on Rue de Verneuilthe walls all painted black; the décor a reflection of the late artist’s pathology, including a shrine of Birkin’s personal belongings (left untouched for over a decade following their separation), photos stolen from Salvador Dalí’s Parisian home in the 1950s, and the cabbage head statue from L’Homme à Tête de Chou. Edited roughly and sometimes saturated with a red darkroom effect, the video effectively captures the essence of the song itself: that is, a disoriented, mournful, profoundly endearing portrait of a daughter trying to make sense of a sometimes-absent father. The chorus offers a fine sample of the record’s many exacting (and surreal) lyrics: “My feet are hovering above ground / Ready to follow / My mouth is whispering in raptures / Celebrating you.”

Throughout the entire record, Gainsbourg appears to be possessed by these tremendous bursts of inspiration: melodically, lyrically, and sequentially, Rest reveals one marvel after another. In “Kate,” the artist paints a second gorgeous tribute to her departed half-sister, who tragically fell from a balcony in Paris in 2013. Having recently turned 46 (the same age Kate was at the time of her passing), the song is one of the only ones on the record to be sung entirely in French; the chorus is a wordless flight of notes, climbing the scales of the chord changes (an inversion of a fall…). In the title track and the album opener (“Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses”), she gives us a pair of adult nursery rhymes whose subtle, playfully cinematic imagery trickles throughout the remaining numbers.

While I find it difficult to choose a single track for consideration, it is nigh on impossible to argue with the album’s centerpiecea six-minute composition of futurist disco chamber music, titled “Deadly Valentine.” With a simple, descending top line melody (and an even simpler counterpoint highlighting the chorus), Gainsbourg has put to shame whoever her competition might be in the contemporary dance charts. (As if the song itself weren’t enough, she directed and starred in another video for it.) And then there’s the McCartney-penned “Songbird in a Cage,” which makes fine use of Charlotte’s spoken word abilities, but even finer use of her limited (but totally self-aware) singing voice. Rest closes with the relentless death-disco anthem, “Les Oxalis,” whose coda features a girl-child (perhaps a home recording of Charlotte, preserved by Serge?) singing the French alphabet. Forget the phonebook: her point’s already taken.

My only prayer is that this songbird goes on to write, sing, and record as many songs as her soul can carry. The world already seems a better place with Rest in it.

 

1. Harmony of Difference – Kamasi Washington
(Young Turks)

 

As the year wound down to a simultaneously dreaded, and anxiously awaited conclusion, it dawned on me that there was only one record I turned to unconditionally—on any given day—for comfort, respite, and clarity.

Kamasi Washington’s follow-up to his ambitious triple-album debut (aptly titled The Epic) was the record I listened to the most during 2017, but that isn’t the only reason I feel comfortable calling it my album of the year. In a strange way, every musical path highlighted in this year-end list leads back to the thesis at the heart of Kamasi’s latest record (marketed as an EP, but generous enough to be counted as a full-length in most other circles). Inspired by the simple idea that a multitude of voices are necessary to produce the most beautiful harmonies (this coupled with a series of paintings by Kamasi’s sister, Amani), Harmony of Difference is arguably the most musically informed, thoroughly developed, modestly sophisticated recording of the year.

The album begins with “Desire”—a melody every bit as profound and sensual as its title. Here we are introduced to the first of five interrelated themes, which will fuse together during the second half of the EP (titled “Truth”), ultimately resolving one another and, in turn, finding resolution. The opening theme is easily my favorite of the five, but Kamasi shows us—not in an academic way (thank god); more like a precocious child, enchanted by the inner workings of a wonderful phenomenon the academics have become numb to—that each of the themes are essential to carrying “Desire” to its destination.

Harmony of Difference has just about everything you could hope for in a record: wit, charm, ambition; musicianship (and then some), self-knowledge, sincerity; sexiness, intensity, and moments of pure calm. The dynamism of Kamasi’s band is simply extraordinary: having seen a live performance of theirs this past month in Cincinnati, I left the venue stunned by the sprawl of their sound palette, and the consistency of their perspective (which is, appropriately enough, the title of the fourth theme on this record). And whereas The Epic can be seen as a vast, impressive achievement for any artist, the concision with which this particular artist has honed and delivered its follow-up is a rarity; a joy to behold.

I will here share one final thought about the music on this list, and this album in particular. On Halloween of this year, I found myself on a train from Paris to Brussels, sitting next to my life partner and lightly dozing after a rush (souvenir-loaded baggage in tow) from our hotel to the boarding station. I had put in my headphones and set my iPod to shuffle; with the volume turned low, the little machine hummed through a selection of songs from an assortment of records (many of them on this list). Having drifted off, I can only speculate as to what was playing as I was dreaming. But I vividly recall opening my eyes and looking out the window at the French countryside, drifting by beneath a veil of fog—green hills rolling off into the distance. The song that triggered me to awaken was “Desire,” and I have had the good fortune of pairing this memory with the song on all further listens. Just in writing this, I am jolted by a vision of those big knotted trees, rooted stubbornly in the middle of an empty plain (not entirely unlike the tree on the cover of Harmony). And just as my week-long European visit served to remind me of the things I know and love in this world, Kamasi Washington’s music has reminded me to seek out the harmonies in life; especially in those areas that seem entirely discordant to us. For often, they are there for the finding: our task is merely to rediscover a child’s wonder; to regain our sensitivity to those phenomena that are so easily forgotten, when one tricks oneself into believing the answer is already at hand. Or that there can ever be a single answer…

or: An Open Appeal to a Sane Society

Meet the new houseguest who doesn’t intend to leave: the horror movie that doesn’t seem to end, and that you’re not allowed to look away from. Like a 21st century variant of Burgess’s Ludovico treatment—only worse, because you’re actually living with the images forced upon you by some diabolical overlord. Enter the age of 45: the Hotel California of the new millennium. Life confined to a locked, low-ventilation room; with a wild badger thrown in for companionship, and the expectation that you’ll keep cleaning up after the damage—while never being offered the option to expel the badger altogether. At least, not as long as the ratings are up.

ACWO_Ludovico

Alex de Lange undergoes the Ludovico Treatment in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel, A Clockwork Orange: the treatment entails forcing the patient to watch films of crimes and historic horrors, with the intent that exposure will prevent the patient’s committal of further crimes. Suffice it to say, the treatment is not entirely effective. © 1971, Warner Pictures.

As I sit here—wide awake, still a little stunned by the Senatorial victory of (Democrat) Doug Jones in the well-established Red terrain of Alabama—I realize just how much this bit of good news means to me: to my mental wellness, and my general sense of empathetic orientation with the human race. An orientation that has been shaken to its core since the traumatic national and international events of 2016.

Trauma changes people.

I realize tonight that this isn’t just about Doug Jones and Roy Moore, to me (and possibly, to many other American citizens as well). It’s not just about this shitshow of a presidential administration we find ourselves stuck living through—this wild badger thrown in the room, that we’re not allowed to remove for another three years (maybe less…). It’s about securing some fresh, statistical evidence that the people you’re sharing this country with (including your own self) are still capable of not being vicious, careless, misanthropic, narcissistic, mysoginistic, racist ogres. Evidence that we still have something worth fighting for, hidden among the bushes of the outrage mongers in talk news and the trolls, bots, and clickbait mongers on the internet.

Just as we must remember that the profoundly traumatic realities of 45’s election, his inauguration, and his repulsive miscarriage of Federal power, could have (and should have) been overshadowed by the 3 million plus voters outnumbering his “victory,” we must take (and savor) this moment as a signal that the human race hasn’t entirely surrendered its own plight—despite certain running indicators and unfortunate appearances. That contrary to Nick Cave’s misanthropic anthem (“People Ain’t No Good”), people ain’t entirely no good.

Above and beyond the effect this election portends for the state of Alabama itself (a state that hasn’t swung Blue in the Senate since the pre-Civil Rights Act days of LBJ), this event signals an anxiously awaited response from Republicans to the recent resignation of Democrat Al Franken (in light of the on-going denials put forth by 45’s administration, when confronted with the allegations of 19 women claiming past assault at the hands of our current president). Our nation’s sense of dread and anticipation was palpable, as Alabama faced the somewhat unreasonably challenging choice between a known, racist child predator, and a Democrat: would the state reflect the running trend in the GOP (deflecting attention from its own sins by playing an endless game of “pin the tail on the donkey”), or would they snap out of their Red state-induced coma long enough to recognize the hypocrisy that underlies every facet of their party’s current incarnation? Furthermore, would they perpetuate the mistake made by millions of Americans during the 2016 election—voters who somehow felt it wiser to support and elect the most morally defunct, greed-driven, and predatory Presidential candidate put forth in recent U.S. history, with the apparent delusion that they could return their purchase if it didn’t work out; Democrats, Republicans, and independents who apparently failed to recognize how much easier it is to prevent an elected demagogue’s abuse of power by not electing said demagogue in the first place—or would they prove to the rest of the country that they’d taken notes from that experience, and were willing to learn from past errors in judgment? And last (but certainly not least): would they demonstrate that the all-too-common social problem of sexual abuse (among other abuses of power) was identifiable as a human problem—a problem that transcends one’s party affiliation, or one’s like/dislike of the perpetrator—and not just some perverted political weapon, used to consolidate power and enable further abuses?

“There is more paradise in hell than we’ve been told.”
– Nick Cave (from One More Time With Feeling)

The trauma of waking up and having to see this horrendous failure of humanity (known by the acronym DJT) on every television screen, in every room (or check out for awhile, only to be haunted by fear and unease as to what might have transpired while you were sleeping), should never be downplayed or minimized. These are strange times, to be sure; but beyond the surrealism of it all, these are dangerous times. Dangerous for the fate of the planet; dangerous for the fate of children and adolescents, having to grow up out of the rubble of all this trauma. Dangerous for the fates of democracy: the right to free speech; the right to potable water; the right to our national monuments; the right to an affordable education; the right to affordable healthcare; the right to be a woman; the right to be a person of color; the right to a neutral internet. The right to not have the fragile egos of feeble leaders signing off on unnecessary wars and international conflicts—with the name of your country printed on the dotted line. The rights of veterans to access treatment and services, and to not be rendered homeless and helpless by the cruelty of weak men who sent them off to fight these unnecessary wars.

The right to love the person you choose to love. The right to vote for the candidates and issues you believe in and/or identify with—and the right to have your vote counted. The right to worship (or not worship) the deity of your choosing, and the right of others to do so in turn. The right to a fair trial in a court of law, overseen by a qualified judge who has undergone reasonable scrutiny before being entrusted with the fates of American citizens of all ages. The right to fight for environmentally-sound policy; functional infrastructure; fairer tax structures. The right to fight for the “little guy” (and gal), and a platform on which the underdog is allowed to speak and compete with the fastest runners.

The right to have all claims of sexual misconduct treated seriously, regardless of how much we may like or dislike the person whose reputation is on the line: the rights of the men and women who have experienced horrific personal traumas and abuses to have their stories heard—not exploited for the limelight, or an uptick in ratings, but actually listened to; respected; taken seriously. (Also, the right for the individual being prosecuted to speak on his own behalf and be heard, in the event some kind of foul play is in the works—or, in the event that the individual’s offenses are even worse than what was reported).

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Jane Fonda plays a prostitute caught in a scheme of political intrigue, in Alan J. Pakula’s 1971 masterpiece of paranoia, Klute. The film was followed by two other entries in a “paranoia trilogy:” The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976). © 1971, Warner Pictures.

Over the past year, all of these rights have been (or are being) assaulted, defiled, defaced, or distorted beyond recognition. Many of us have turned to each other (or our respective deities) in desperation and confusion, hoping for solace and reassurance. Sometimes, we’ve been greeted with the terrifying vision of our neighbor’s desperation; other times—like tonight, after this small but somehow tremendous victory for the people of the United States—we are offered a ray of hope; a sign of life. A montage of baby steps towards a resolution, interjected at the end of the first chapter in some seemingly interminable (and poorly shot) blockbuster of political paranoia and international intrigue (think Pakula’s paranoia trilogy, or Polanski’s domestic horrors, as filmed by Jerry Bruckheimer; try not to vomit).

Trauma doesn’t usually leave when you ask it to: like that pesky houseguest (or that wild badger), it will linger and wreak as much havoc as allowed, and you may well find yourself on the verge of being evicted from your own home. And despite possible good intentions, lashing out in anger and aggression at the trauma you’re cohabitating with won’t do much good. I’m reminded of a scene in Noah Baumbach’s latest work—a straight-to-Netflix affair titled The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected): following their sister’s disclosure that she was molested by their uncle one summer in her childhood, two brothers decide to avenge her trauma by violently (albeit incompetently) trashing their uncle’s car in a hospital parking lot. They leave the scene of the crime giddy with pride at their perceived accomplishment; they feel somewhat less empowered after informing their sister, and hearing her disarming reaction: “it doesn’t change the fact that I’m fucked up for life.”

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Elizabeth Marvel plays Jean Meyerowitz in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)—a Xerox executive who experienced sexual abuse during childhood at the hands of a relative, and explains flatly that there is nothing that can be done to remove the trauma from her personal history. © 2017, Netflix Pictures.

Hopefully, the trauma inflicted upon us by this deranged, dishonest, degraded, degrading, and possibly treasonous administration, will be survived by the good people of this country. Hopefully, the people who come out of this ordeal will look, think, and act a little more like the good people who turned out in droves for today’s vote in Alabama—people who chose to put principles above partisanship—as opposed to the people who enabled and supported this catastrophe back in its “preventable” stage. Hopefully, we will look back on this day as the day a nation came to its senses: the day we came to appreciate, collectively, just how much is at stake in this catastrophe; how much we have already lost, and how much more we have to lose if we don’t reject this putrescence—once and for all—and return to some core standards of intuition, decency, diplomacy, critical thought, self-awareness, and accountability.

There is still a long way to go, and a lot of work to be done: let’s not just rest on the laurels of a small step for man (however significant it may have been to the survival of mankind). Let’s keep moving ever-higher, up to the highest point on the curve of justice—outlining the arc of history in the most ambitious and humanistic shape possible. Let’s stay the course of sanity; for we should all be well aware by now, how easily we can be misled by the folly of ignorance, frail egos, and festering hatred.

Here’s looking to signs of life after trauma.

An appreciation of the 12th annual Dayton LGBT Film Festival

It was a beautiful mid-October weekend in Southern Ohio, and a modest-but-dedicated crowd of midwesterners congregated in the lobby of Dayton’s Neon Movies for its annual LGBT Film Festival. Over the course of the weekend, a total of seven feature-length films and ten shorts would be screened for the festival’s attendees (Yours Truly made it to five of the features and nine of the shorts). The films ranged in subject matter: from high school rom-com, to maudlin countryside English drama, to a documentary about the most world-renowned drag ballet troupe, to a family portrait set in a small Alaskan town. Collectively, the films seemed (to this viewer, at least) to represent the best and, on one or two occasions, the worst of LGBTQ culture in the 21st century. Which is a testament to the quality of the festival and its selection process: for the dregs only make the gems pop that much more; and as in every year prior, there were far more gems than dregs.

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Alex Lawther plays Billy Bloom: the frustrated (and frequently, frustrating) protagonist of Trudie Styler’s Freak Show. © 2017, IFC Films.

The festival opened on Friday the 13th with Trudie Styler’s independently-produced teen comedy-drama, Freak Show. For want to move on and discuss some of the more worthwhile features showcased during the festival, I am tempted to fall back on the old adage “the less said about it, the better.” But of the few disappointing features this writer endured over the weekend, Freak Show actually presents a substantial number of worthwhile talking points. Sadly, the finished film appears mostly oblivious to its own potential; and when the filmmakers seize upon the opportunity to say something of substance in the picture, they either lack the vocabulary to communicate it effectively, or forfeit the opportunity altogether in order to fall back on easy clichés and grossly oversimplified (not to mention divisive) rhetoric. In fact, it is more-than-likely that anyone with anti-LGBT inclinations would not only have their fears reinforced, but emboldened by the film’s misguided perspective.

For starters, it is impossible to read Freak Show as anything but a direct descendant of the prolific American television entrepreneur Ryan Murphy—and more specifically, the zeitgeist-defining Glee franchise on Fox television. From the outset, Styler makes her stylistic template all-too-clear: from the upscale school environment, to the character (stereo)types (the hunky-jock-with-a-heart-of-gold; the Christian goody-two-shoes cheerleader; the loud-and-proud queer kids) to the generic, broadly stylized photography and editing, Freak Show lives and breathes the DNA of the cultural harbinger that preceded it. With one key difference—which the picture wears on its sleeve rather clumsily and cluelessly: that whereas Glee emerged during the Obama years of “hope and change,” Freak Show is presented as a product of desperation in “the age of 45.” Which makes it all the more disappointing that, rather than presenting alternatives and proposing solutions to the mean-spirited cynicism of the country’s cultural hurricane, Styler & co. seem to have gotten lost somewhere in the storm.

I find it especially interesting to note that Freak Show (a borderline cruel comedy) was helmed by a woman director: in my personal reading of the picture, the fundamental mistakes made by Styler’s production were the product of good intentions—yet they seem to echo an unhealthy trend permeating the country in 2017. Namely, the trend of going to bat for an identity/gender/ethnicity outside one’s own, but resorting to blindly aggressive (verging on plain mean) tactics that many of the persecuted individuals stuck in the limelight might well feel inclined to reject—if given a chance to speak. It is all-too-apparent that Styler has an emotional investment in her protagonist, the precociously flamboyant Billy Bloom: one questions, however, whether this same emotional investment has been applied towards any of the other characters in the picture. For it appears that Styler’s empathetic range is about as myopic as the picture’s screenplay (adapted from a book that I’ve never read, and am in no position to criticize), and her specific lack of empathy for one of the narrative’s primary antagonists—the goody-two-shoes cheerleader, Tiffany (played capably—perhaps too much so—by Willa Fitzgerald)—is telling. The narrative’s intentions backfire with each cringe-inducing line forced upon Fitzgerald’s caricatured cheerleader (an archetype one could surely recognize without the undue delineation granted here), espousing every bigoted stereotype of the religious Right, but without even a hint at the human fallibility that enables such nonsense. (For comparison, note that Billy is never painted as anything less than a victim, though his distinctly privileged and narrow worldview just as readily coincides with that of a bully.) Styler & co. have gone to such great lengths to mock and vilify their antagonist, that any viewer with a modicum of trained compassion might feel compelled to jump to Tiffany’s defense.

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Though criticized by some prominent figures of the religious Right as a distortion of adolescent norms, Ryan Murphy and the writers of Glee actually displayed a consistent effort to humanize their Christian characters and respect the broad range of belief systems among the show’s viewers. © Fox Television, 2015.

As for our protagonist, Billy Bloom represents pretty much all the negative sterotypes of queer youth, with few identifiable virtues. For instance, Billy is frequently seen quoting Oscar Wilde, yet in practice he represents none of Wilde’s resiliency, wisdom, or empathy for his peers. He bemoans his ostracization at school, yet intentionally exacerbates the problem by presenting increasingly rarefied and flamboyant incarnations of himself from day to day—simultaneously expecting and lamenting criticism. Looking back on the picture, I am reminded of an insight shared in the documentary Rebels on Pointe, screened Sunday afternoon: speaking in relation to the ethos of the film’s subject (a drag ballet troupe), one commentator insists that dancers “don’t have to fit in, but they have to be able to function.” When in Freak Show, the blame for the protagonist’s inability to do either is foisted upon a cheerleader, I can only hope that no one buys the implication (particularly LGBTQ teenagers, for whom the picture was most clearly intended; what kind of message is this?)

Our protagonist (and the film he fronts, for that matter) waves a banner of blind acceptance and tolerance, but he routinely displays a lack of awareness, empathy, and respect for those outside his sphere of influence. In a particularly telling sequence, Billy decides to compete against Tiffany for the title of homecoming queen, and subsequently attempts to outshine his competition at a stadium pep rally. Tiffany, who proudly states she has been preparing for this occasion since 7th grade, presents herself on a predictably decorative float with a banner announcing her candidacy; Billy ostensibly one-ups her by riding in on a float shaped like an enormous high-heeled platform shoe—holding a guitar and playfully pantomiming the act of making music. Watching the broadly painted scene unfold, I found myself struck less by the grandiosity of the protagonist’s presentation, and more by the way the scene inadvertently highlights the empty ambition of Billy’s character, and the movie in general: for while they both offer an occasionally credible guise of substance—fragments of a message: an increased awareness and understanding of LGBTQ issues, perhaps; or some vague missive of empowerment—they evidently lack the ability to make any real music with the tools at their disposal. By the film’s long-awaited close, its creators have succeeded only in drawing our attention to the weakness of their own propositions; never having bothered to investigate (much less address) the source of the bigotry they feigned to condemn. (On a more positive note, I will take a moment here to champion the never-ending talents of Bette Midler and Celia Weston: two beacons of on-screen light who never fail to shine brightly.)

But the night was’t a total wash: the short that preceded Freak Show, a 12-minute drama centered upon a young man of color who enters the world of drag and discovers his queer family (in the same vein mined by Jennie Livingston 27 years prior), presented us with an endearing portrait of queer family dynamics. The boy’s mother (played smartly by Yolonda Ross) convincingly represents the real-life struggle of mothers around the world—recognizing their own distance from the cultural orientation of their offspring, but ill-equipped to traverse the gap and (in some cases) reluctant to even try, for fear of challenging one’s own convictions (the dual meaning of the film’s title, “Walk For Me,” further highlights this theme). Driving home at the end of the night, I found myself regretting the disparity in runtimes between the two features.

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Brenda Holder makes herself up as Paris Continental in Elegance Bratton’s economical but effective short film, “Walk For Me.” (No major distributor attached.)

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Saturday’s offerings proved much more rewarding—starting with a selection of “Top Drawer Shorts” (seven in total): three of which were forgettable, three of which were good, and one that was outstanding. The first entry, “Something New,” assumes the form of a light-hearted romantic comedy (the writer and star, Ben Baur, was present for the screening and explained during a brief Q&A that he found inspiration in the romantic comedies of Meg Ryan: having never personally acquired a taste for Ms. Ryan’s whitebreaded brand of bourgeois lovesickness, I confess to having no horse in this race, and will temper my criticism accordingly). While essentially innocuous, the script is tepid at best, and outright callow in its lowest moments. Which isn’t to say that queer comedies haven’t traditionally been shaded in tones of callowness; but when no other qualities can be discerned, one wonders if this might be all the filmmakers have to offer.

The second short in the series, “The Devil is in the Details,” offered us something more substantial—but juxtaposed against its hollow predecessor, it almost felt over-compensatory. A period piece set in a 19th century French borstal for girls, the film centers on a young woman achieving the realization that she was born with hermaphroditic genitalia. As her testes painfully descend throughout the short’s exposition, the faculty grapples with the boundaries of gender identity and ultimately decides to transfer the student to an all-boys school. Beautifully shot and impeccably acted, the only shortcoming I could perceive in “The Devil…” was its somewhat constrictive running length; which is, in film terms, a definitive compliment.

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Laure LeFort plays Alexina in Fabien Gorgeart’s noteworthy short, “The Devil is in the Details.” © 2016, Première Ligne Films.

Next up, the festival’s first “true story” offering: titled “Imago,” this quasi-documentary explores life through the eyes of a 15-year-old transgendered girl, who decides to write a letter to her father outlining the reasons she cannot bring herself to spend time with him anymore (the end credits explain that the screenplay took this real-life letter as its source material/inspiration). The film is short, effective, and memorable: one gleans the distinct impression that the filmmakers bit off just as much as they could chew within the budgeted amount of screen time. The film was followed by what read to me like a failed Saturday Night Live skit (“Haygood Eats”), and then came the cream of this anthology’s crop—a short documentary entitled “Bootwmn.”

Somewhere between Christopher Guest and Louis Malle’s American documentaries from the 1980s (God’s Country; …And the Pursuit of Happiness), “Bootwmn” is a charmingly earnest, refreshingly non-abrasive portrait of a self-proclaimed Texan bulldyke named Deana McGuffin. Charting her journey from apprentice to her grandfather’s boot-making enterprise, to a visionary boot designer/boot-maker in her own right, the film toys thoughtfully and playfully with themes of authenticity, communication through creativity, and the objective value of a work ethic. Throughout the film we meet two of Deana’s employees, and join them as a fly on the wall during their adventurous decision to enter a pair of queerly decorated boots (known as the “Gay State” boots) into a highly traditional Texan boot-making competition. For fear of spoiling the outcome of this altogether remarkable celebration of the human spirit, I will refrain from saying more.

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Deana McGuffn (center) flanked by two of her workshop assistants in the delightful dark horse of a short, “Bootwmn”—directed by Sam McWilliams & Paige Gratland, and backed by a crowdfunding campaign. (No major distributor attached.)

The penultimate short, an Australian drag piece titled “Picking Up,” was fine but forgettable. And while not as forgettable, Danny DeVito’s cute and aptly titled “Curmudgeons” left me wanting (of what exactly, I’m not sure). My vote for Best Short is cast for “Bootwmn.”

Up next—and following immediately on the heels of the “top-drawer shorts”—one of two full-length documentaries included in this year’s line-up: The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin. Comprehensive in scope and scintillating in detail (including the sultry anecdote of a threeway with Rock Hudson), Untold Tales is a delight, and is bound to win over fans and first-timers in equal measure. In classic documentary form, filmmaker Jennifer Kroot places Armistead’s first-person narrative of his own life’s story within a well-rounded framework of objective context from third party sources. For example, when Maupin explains his defense for having outed other celebrities at the height of his own fame, Kroot quickly jumps to the perspective of other LGBT voices who alternately support and criticize his motives—with a pause added for the viewer to reach their own conclusion. At no point does Kroot’s focus stray far from her central subject, but the sheer range of perspectives, stories, and insights shared throughout presents a veritable kaleidoscope of 20th century queer culture. Ultimately, Maupin emerges (like all great documentary subjects) a fascinating, admirable, and flawed character—whose life work (and story) raises as many questions as it provides answers. It goes on to win this year’s Audience Favorite award.

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While I regretfully missed the Saturday evening screening of Sensitivity Training (directed by Melissa Finell), I returned for the late-night showing of Shaz Bennett’s commendable feature-length debut, Alaska is a Drag. Filmed in rural Michigan but inspired by the filmmaker’s own experiences gutting fish for a living in a small Alaskan town (while dreaming of making it big in the movie industry), Alaska comes across as an honest, assured, and pretense-free family drama—raising issues of identity and conformity with all the wisdom and humor denied us by Friday night’s feature. The star of the film, Martin L. Washington, Jr., delivers an absorbing and memorable turn as Leo—the twenty-something Alaskan drag queen who dreams of making it big and moving to the big city, but is trapped gutting fish for a living and tending family wounds. At times reminiscent of characters in a Jarmusch movie, Martin’s tangible rapport with his on-screen sibling (played by Maya Washington; no relation) gives the film life and frequently compensates for the frailties of its writing. The film is shot simply and effectively, and the photography is, at times, inspired—particularly during the sequences of the family RV at night, and the transitional sequences of the siblings strutting home down a dirt path. The exceptional supporting cast of Alaska is rounded out by Matt Dallas, Christopher O’Shea, and Kevin Daniels—with smart cameos by Jason Scott Lee (Dragon: the Bruce Lee Story) as Leo’s affable employer, and Margaret Cho as the town’s drag king bartender.

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Martin L. Washington, Jr., and Maya Washington star as an endearing set of siblings in Shaz Bennett’s full-length feature debut, Alaska is a Drag—previously released in 2012 as a short with the same title. (No major distributor attached.)

Leaving the theater at the end of this second night, it struck me that Alaska is a Drag handled many of the same issues and themes marketed by the opening night’s misfire: the queering of masculinity and jock culture; interpersonal conflict and religious conviction; the tension between longing to fit in and wanting to stand out. What worked in the latter film, but not in the first? For starters, Bennett’s film leaves something to the imagination—a quality I can only speculate is closely linked to a filmmaker’s respect for the audience’s intelligence. More importantly, Bennett (who wrote the film as well as having directed it) insists upon an understanding of each character in her film’s tapestry; which isn’t to say she allocates equal screen time to each character, but simply that she refrains from taking any cheap shots, and commits herself to practicing the fundamental message queer culture has been striving to convey for well over a century. The message: that everyone deserves the dignity of their own personhood—and the plight (read: struggle) of humankind is to recognize and respect this universal dignity.

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The third and final day of the Dayton LGBT Film Festival read like a victory lap. I missed the first feature (Pushing Dead, directed by Tom E. Brown), but made it for the two final screenings: Bobbi Jo Hart’s documentary on the (in)famous Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, titled Rebels on Pointe; and this year’s heavily-hyped British import, God’s Own Country—touted as a more explicit Brokeback Mountain. Both films successfully live up to the hype surrounding them (a second screening of Rebels on Pointe was added, at the last minute, to accommodate the Dayton Ballet dancers who could not make it to the first screening), and it is authenticity that emerges as the weekend’s clear winner.

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Dancers of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo waiting in the wings of Bobbi Jo Hart’s endearing feature-length documentary, Rebels on Pointe. (No major distributor attached.)

In Rebels on Pointe, the viewer is introduced to the world of drag ballet through an all-access pass into the real lives of dancers for the world-renowned Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo—the first and foremost all-male (and all-gay) ballet company; committed to rendering post-modern (and frequently comical) interpretations of historically celebrated ballet works. The film is gentle, intelligent, smartly pieced together, and irreverent in all the right places. As we get to know each of the dancers profiled by Hart & co., we discover an eclectic range of personalities, family backgrounds, dance résumés, and cultural origins. One dancer is a young Cuban emigre whose mother was a dancer of note in his homeland; another is a thirty-year-old American who struggled to fit in with the orthodox ballet company he had initially joined—finding himself more properly challenged by the the more experimental director of the Trockadero; another is a forty-year-old man whose parents underwent a generational struggle to embrace their son’s life pursuit (they eventually came around, and are featured memorably among the filmed interviews); yet another has chosen to relocate from his native land of Italy, in order to follow his dream and make his family proud. Hart expertly weaves the dancers’ stories together with selected snippets from live Trockadero performances, and the finished product emerges as something between a behind-the-scenes Madonna tour documentary, and one of Jean Rouch’s sociological studies.

Speaking of studies, God’s Own Country wound the weekend down on a note of decided realism. Set in the stunningly photogenic Yorkshire countryside, this feature-length debut by director Francis Lee is likely to acquire a fair share of international accolades before the year is up: and rightly so. Filmed with the same grace regularly displayed by one of its two main protagonists, the Romanian heartthrob Gheorghe (played with quiet magnetism by Alec Secareanu), God’s Own Country tells the tragicomic tale of a young Englishman (played by Josh O’Connor) following in the footsteps of his father—a modest sheep farmer—and willfully suppressing his own dreams of finding romantic fulfillment with another man. As his repressed inclinations toward tenderness habitually transfer themselves into acts of rage and brutality, Johnny (O’Connor) embarks upon a gradual but believable journey of self-discovery; visually, his journey is matched by the characters’ endeavor to surmount the harsher elements of the stark, cold country.

There are many directions in which Lee’s film could have easily mis-stepped, but it is a testament to his skills as a budding filmmaker that he managed to avoid every opportunity to genericize (or scandalize) his subject matter. As with any film of note, the photography merges with the sound design and the chemistry of the actors’ performances to create a fully-formed piece of moving poetry: a whole that can be read both as an eloquent sum of its parts, and as an entity onto itself. O’Connor deserves special commendation for the complex definition of his lead performance, which successfully elicits every audience response imaginable over the course of the film’s roughly two-hour runtime: from disgust to sadness; from anger to empathy; from laughter to scrutiny. In Johnny, we find a protagonist with both the nuanced pathology of Terry Malloy or Jim Stark, and the primal force of Jake La Motta. Here’s looking forward to what Lee (and O’Connor, for that matter) have to offer us next.

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Alec Secareanu (left) and Josh O’Connor (right) play accidental lovers in Francis Lee’s confident and affecting debut feature, God’s Own Country. © 2017, BFI Films.

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Seen together, the films selected for the 12th annual Dayton LGBT Film Festival effectively presented a sort of running dialogue between disparate perspectives and ideologies throughout the queer community: a dialogue that transcends time and identity, but occasionally gets hung up on or the other (or both). In granting the auspice of victory to the notion of “authenticity,” I propose that the finest observations presented throughout this dialogue emerged from a place of genuine creative expression, whereas the weakest commentary appeared wrapped up in a shiny bow of commodified entertainment. A contrast that resonates most markedly in our contemporary cultural climate—in which these same factors of commodification and hollow entertainment, which have regrettably (but nevertheless, successfully) embedded themselves within our cultural and political landscapes, threaten daily to consume all forms of genuine interest in (and expression of) the human condition.

We see it in the contrast between Freak Show and Rebels on Pointe; or the chasm of perspective (and intention) separating “Something New” from “Bootwmn.” We also see it in the recurring re-appearance of negative gay stereotypes: the callow sex addict who treats his fellow humans like objects; the pompous and shallow histrionics of a young queer kid who expects the world to bow at his feet; the self-righteous rebukes directed at anyone and everyone whose politics conflict with, or simply stray (no matter how minutely) from the advancement of one’s own interests. Perhaps these stereotypes exist to remind us that these character flaws still exist; in which case, point taken. But one could just as easily argue that these character flaws persist to this day as a byproduct of perpetuated stereotypes; in which case, maybe we would all be better served by letting such vacuity go, once and for all. Maybe we would be better off by simply embracing the compassionate perspective outlined in the work of Shaz Bennett, Francis Lee, Bobbi Jo Hart, and Jennifer Kroot (and the works of Louis Malle and Jean Rouch before them): that everyone is entitled to the dignity of their own personhood—and it is our charge to recognize and respect this dignity in others, as much as it is our journey to discover it for ourselves. In the immortal words of St. Francis: to understand is to be understood.

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Depeche Mode performing at the “DTE Energy Center” (formerly Pine Knob) in Clarkston/Detroit, MI, on August 27th, 2017.

I’m standing in a sea of people (most of them dressed in black, or something approximating), bobbing my head in nonverbal agreement as Dave Gahan leaps about the stage at a large outdoor venue in Clarkston, about an hour north of Detroit: according to its Wikipedia entry, the venue was formerly known as Pine Knob, before the “Pine” was dropped from the name. (Presently, the amphitheater is referred to by the markedly less spirited name of the corporation leasing it for advertisement.) Gahan slowly scans the crowd as he melodiously observes—in that well-established, sensual growl we’ve all grown to know and love: “You’ve been kept down/You’ve been pushed ’round/You’ve been lied to/You’ve been fed truths.” The theater grow increasingly silent, as fans lean in to decipher the words to a song from the newest Depeche Mode album: “Who’s making your decisions?/You or your religion?/Your government, your countries/You patriotic junkies…

The crowd roars with something between consensus and confusion; as though torn between the pride of one’s own patriotic addiction, and the awareness that this rather mundane line of lyrical questioning may be too on-the-nose for comfort. The roar swells to a cry of total submission as Gahan and songwriter Martin L. Gore join in unison (an octave apart) to deliver one of their most downbeat-ly whip-smart choruses (“Where’s the revolution?/C’mon, people, you’re letting me down“), before lunging into a second verse of inquisitive befuddlement at the evident complacency among the masses they once dedicated an entire album to.

The performance was riveting on multiple levels, not the least of which rates Gahan’s incredibly active on-stage presence. But beyond the acrobatic microphone twirling and hip-shaking, the timeliness of this tour couldn’t escape even the most oblivious of audience participants. In the previous week’s news cycle alone, the country learned of 45’s reversal of a ban on police departments purchasing military gear; the bafflingly inappropriate Presidential pardon of “America’s toughest sheriff,” Joe Arpaio; and the devastating wreckage being caused by Hurricane Harvey in the Southernmost regions of the country—calling to memory the fiasco surrounding the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (and not yet calling to mind the wreckage of Hurricane Irma, still only a blip around the corner in the minds of most citizens).

With this as the backdrop, one couldn’t help but pick up shades of their ingenious Rose Bowl concert in June of ’88, which provided source material for one of the most legendary and influential live albums of the decade—Depeche Mode 101. Nearing the end of Reagan’s second term in office, and coinciding with the start of the UK band’s crossover success with listeners in mainstream America, the event was a phenomenon of culturally relevant bombast: from the then-quite-shocking, counter-religious anthem, “Blasphemous Rumours,” to the anthemic-yet-poignant “Black Celebration” (simultaneously calling to mind the band’s gothic glory and the dark cloud of AIDS), to the heroin-streaked exhilaration of “Never Let Me Down Again,” to their brilliantly ambiguous tribute to the virtues of capitalism (“Everything Counts”), 101 was a bona fide, counter-cultural harbinger. It was only fitting that it should’ve been captured by the acclaimed documentarian D.A. Pennebaker—who previously lent his visionary perspective to documentaries on the fateful Altamont festival, the Monterey Pop festival, Bowie’s final Ziggy concert with the Spiders From Mars, and the cultural zenith of Woodstock (among others). To this day, Pennebaker’s 101 film carries a gravitas that few other filmed music documents of the decade can reasonably lay claim to: the fact that the band had yet to unleash their most enormously successful record and tour (Violator) merely serves to highlight the historical weight of this concert; and more broadly, the on-going significance of its performers.

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If one were to search for a musical document of comparable relevance, one shouldn’t have to go far to stumble upon that other behemoth of ’80s alternative pop, U2—a marginally more commercial enterprise by this point in the decade, but one that shared more than a few key ingredients: both were UK imports (a feature more proudly showcased among Bono & co., but an important element of both bands’ successes); both shared fairly inauspicious, working class origins; and they both shared a genuine love of American R&B—something that may be more apparent to U2’s bevy of American listeners, but is no less true of their more broodingly electronic counterpart (if in doubt, refer to the twangy riffs in “Personal Jesus” and “Pleasure Little Treasure;” or the surprising gospel ballad, “Condemnation”). They also shared a common visual design aesthetic, as seen through their respective work(s) with the acclaimed photographer/filmmaker, Anton Corbijn, and by their frequent reliance on highly polished, cinematic imagery.

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Depeche Mode (from left to right: Martin L. Gore, Dave Gahan, Andy Fletcher) photographed by Anton Corbijn in 2017.

More significantly than their sonic and visual similarities, however, the two bands in question represent something far more macro and culturally meaningful: they both pointed—more adroitly at some times than others in their wide-spanning, lucrative careers—to the vastest possibilities of bombast in the still-blossoming arena of pop music; an arena that could be argued to have since dried up, having reached the most dreaded end of ought-to-be-extinction. Back in 1988, stage design aficionados had yet to see the likes of Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour; jumbo-tron technology was still in its formative stages; and holograms were simply cheap stickers on plastic rings found in Cracker Jack boxes. There was an air of possibility and experimentation surrounding the prospect of a commercial band doing an arena tour. Surely, financial dividends proved to be the over-riding intent in such pursuits for many an interested party (as demonstrated in borderline-comical form at the end of Pennebaker’s film of 101, when the venue’s merchandising team—many of whom had never heard of Depeche Mode, and were clearly doubtful the band would be able to fill even a small portion of the rather sizable football stadium—scratch their heads in befuddlement as they wade in a sea of cash spent by loving fans on t-shirts, buttons, programs, pins, and posters); but the late ’80s represented a real pinnacle in the development of large-scale pop music performances, and it wasn’t all just about the dough.

A most telling example of this tug-of-war between commercial and artistic interests was the infamously over-wrought tour in support of Bowie’s 1987 studio album, Never Let Me Down: christened the Glass Spider tour, after one of the album’s showcased tracks, the venture was simultaneously a success and a fiasco. Though it is estimated that six million people attended performances throughout the tour, raking in roughly $86 million for the parties involved (thanks in part to sponsorship by PepsiCo, a decisively controversial move that would go on to provide a template for every large-scale touring act to follow), the Glass Spider tour was widely lamented by music critics as an overly-indulgent display of pomposity. Conversely, more open-minded critics displayed a willingness to read between the broadly painted lines of the tour’s dated production, in order to recognize the artistic intent hidden beneath the permed hair-dos and expensive props. Bowie himself appeared to be questioning the very reasons for his artistic continuity—a process of artistic disorientation that would follow him throughout his subsequent project as lead singer in Reeves Gabrels’s post-rock band, Tin Machine.

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U2 (from left to right: The Edge, Bono, Adam Clayton), as the subject of the 1988 film Rattle and Hum, directed by Phil Joanou. © 1988, Paramount Pictures.

Within this context, the dual phenomena of U2’s Rattle and Hum and Depeche Mode 101 seem to represent a turning point in the history of pop music: a point at which the interests of art and commerce converged most neatly, just before parting ways most decisively—the interests of commerce having emerged victorious, once and for all. And while the past 30 years have seen tours of much greater scale and ambition, one is hard-pressed to find moments of such decisively widespread cultural zeitgeist in music history books. The skeptical reader should keep in mind here that both of these concert films (the former directed by Phil Joanou) were major theatrical releases, which—alongside Prince’s equally innovative Sign O’ the Times concert film—paved the way for pop music documentaries as diverse as Madonna: Truth or DareDixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing, and Peter Bogdanovich’s Tom Petty documentary, Running Down a Dream. Along with Demme’s acclaimed film of the Talking Heads Stop Making Sense tour, and Scorsese’s film of The Last Waltz (released a decade prior), the two features in question can be read as a sort of end-of-the-road signpost in the evolution of pop music narratives in mainstream film. For since then, there have been no mass-distributed music films of commercial note to take a pop music figure as their subject—apart from Justin Bieber: Never Say NeverKaty Perry: Part of Me, and Glee: The 3D Concert Movie (it is worth noting, however, that independently-produced documentaries on more cult-ish music figures—such as Rodriguez, Fela Kuti, Nina Simone, Conny Plank, and Death: the band—are currently on the rise in art houses and on Netflix).

With all of this taken into consideration, one would be forgiven for asking: what ever happened to meaningful bombast? Did Bob Geldof’s (debateably) miscalculated Live Aid events signal the end of an era once marked by pop-rock grandiosity—opening the door for a new generation of self-righteous pop stars, whose boastful passion for fundraising is outweighed only by their passion for the public’s attention/approval? Did the increasing involvement of corporate interests (signaled by Bowie’s Pepsi-endorsed Glass Spider tour, later culminating with TicketMaster and major concert arenas—such as the aforementioned Pine Knob—mutating into vehicles for commercial advertisement) drown out the artistic interests that previously endeavored to exert total creative control over such endeavors? Or is it just that, at the end of the day, a culture of cynicism has finally won out? I suppose that only time will tell; but an educated guess might well lean in the direction of the last hypothesis.

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David Bowie once more sets the template for pop music protocol, when he accepted the sponsorship of PepsiCo during his 1987 tour in support of Never Let Me Down, christened The Glass Spider tour (May 30th to November 28th, 1987).

And this is (in part, at least) why moments such as a live rendition of the new Depeche Mode single, “Where’s the Revolution?”, carry such a startling resonance in 2017. For not only is the song itself perfectly suited for the socio-cultural themes defining our day and age; the mere fact of a major touring band resorting to such an earnest strain of cultural commentary presents a sound for sore ears. In hindsight one finds that, as the early post-Live Aid years gave way to the dawn of slacker-ism, grunge, and a newly commodified variety of hip-hop (frequently laced with lazy machismo and even lazier beat-programming), the notion of a singer-songwriter earnestly expressing concern about the state of the planet began to completely evaporate. Women in pop music became (even) more heavily fetishized, with the boy band phenomenon representing the homo-erotic counterpart of a plastic pop movement coming into full swing. In seeming retaliation to such vacuousness, “hard” pop bands (with acts like Green Day and Blink-182 at the softer side, and Slipknot/Limp Bizkit/Korn at the harder end of the spectrum) represented, in actuality, another side of the same coin. The start of this cultural trajectory might arguably be traced back to the pop art movement—the formal separation of sincerity from artistic expression—but there have since been erratic flickers of endeavored sincerity; like the Green Day/American Idiot craze that swept the nation in the early aughts, or the hard/soft dynamic of Karen O and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Alas, the former example carried with it a distinct aroma of Hot Topic prefab-ness, while the latter has struggled to find stable footing between a drive for artistic integrity and an expectation of commercial success—resulting in a slew of overly eclectic records with several high points, but little in the way of textual consistency.

Compare this to Dave Gahan conducting his umpteenth live rendition of the hit Depeche Mode single, “Enjoy the Silence,” fully trusting the audience to sing the first run-through of the chorus (without missing a beat or a lyric) as he simply holds the microphone above the roar of the crowd. Other contemporary artists might lay claim to some catchy singles, but such cultural “events” seem harder to come by with each passing day; and while there is a greater wealth of brand new, quality music for us to consume than ever before, none of it carries the same conferral of greatness, which was only made possible through an unspoken agreement: that the forces of art and commerce should continually battle and work out their differences within the top 40. Case in point: the most recent, worldwide U2 concert series—supporting the 30th anniversary of their 1987 masterwork, The Joshua Tree.

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“I want to run/I want to hide.” U2 performing “Where the Streets Have No Name” against an astonishingly widescreen backdrop of Anton Corbijn-directed cinematography, at the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, IN (September 10th, 2017).

Among the litany of great studio recordings produced during the 20th century, few can lay claim to the sheer magnitude of factors that triggered the enormous success of this album: from the band’s on-going collaboration with acclaimed producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, to the engineering work of Flood, to the great kaleidoscope of American songwriting influences permeating the album’s 11 tracks, to the promotional album photographs snapped at Zabriskie Point by Anton Corbijn—right on down through the one-two-three punch of hit singles: “With Or Without You,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, and “Where the Streets Have No Name”—it is a massive understatement to remark that all the right elements collided to form this behemoth of pop majesty. Building on the vast, open sound palette first patented by Eno and Lanois on The Unforgettable FireThe Joshua Tree begins with a great fireworks display of sonic dynamism and never lets up, retaining a shimmer of splendor even in its quietest moments (“Running to Stand Still;” “Mothers of the Disappeared”). Performing the album live in its entirety, start to finish, may seem like a parlor trick or a novelty act to some; but for the millions who have attended a performance of this anniversary event (including myself) it likely represented so much more.

For how can you pin a reductive label on a cultural phenomenon that has captivated so many hearts and minds throughout the years: a record so overwhelmingly full of pathos and soaring melodies, that many (if not most) who attend its live performance find themselves spontaneously able to recall every note and lyric to every song—including such minutia as the spoken word piece in “Bullet the Blue Sky,” or the staccato wails of “raining” that line the climactic resolve to “One Tree Hill”? Personally, the experience brought to mind a worn-out cassette tape that once resided long-term in the tape deck of my beat-up Ford Probe, having been lovingly transferred from a vinyl copy of the record I had pulled out of a crate in a thrift store. The sound of the record—brilliantly engineered so that, even in the most depreciated format, and played on the most dilapidated of sound systems, those waves of synth and effected guitars couldn’t fail to wash over the listener, swallowing us up in the grandness of its enterprise. In the album’s official “Making of” documentary, Flood speaks of the production process in terms of it being “very different from anything I’d ever approached before. It was a first for so many things. The whole process was totally different… The type of sound they wanted for the record was very different from anything anybody had asked for: open, ambient, a real sense of space, of the environment you were in. Not normal requests.”

As it turned out, the sound of The Joshua Tree wound up being one of the most highly imitated sounds developed during the annals ’80s pop: its reverberations can be traced directly through Flood’s later work with PJ Harvey, The Smashing Pumpkins, New Order, and—most pointedly—Depeche Mode, having soon after produced their beyond-sensational breakthrough in 1990 (not to mention the sound of other arena-filling acts of the ’90s and aughts; such as Radiohead, Garbage, The Verve, and Coldplay, to name a few). But in the case of U2 and The Joshua Tree, the decision to crack the band’s sound wide open—incorporating entirely new spaces and textures—seemed to reflect more than just an aesthetic choice: indeed, a parallel can be drawn between this newfound openness, and the utterly non-cynical, total sincerity and dedication of the band itself. Producer Brian Eno defined this level of dedication in the same “Making of” doc as follows:

“I had got a real sense that this band was capable of making… something that was self-consciously spiritual to the point of being uncool, and I thought uncool was a very important idea then, because people were being very, very cool. Coolness is a certain kind of detachment from yourself; a certain defensiveness—in not exposing something—because it’s too easy to be shot down if you’re exposed. Of course, everyone was in the process of shooting U2 down. They were not favoured, even though they had a big public following, but critically they were thought to be rather ‘heart on their sleeves.'”

In other interviews, Eno traced this disconnect between the band and the popular trends surrounding them back to their national origins. In a 1994 interview, for instance, the producer reflected: “When you think about it… cool isn’t a notion that you’d often want to apply to the Irish, a people who brilliantly and easily satirize, elaborate and haggle and generally make short stories very long but who rarely exhibit the appetite for cultural disdain—deliberate non-involvement—for which the English pride themselves… It is this reckless involvement that makes the Irish terminally uncool. Cool people stay around the edges and observe the mistakes and triumphs of uncool people (and then write about them)” (quoted in Noel McLaughlin’s essay, “Eno, Ireland, and U2”). Regardless of its roots, the “terminally uncool” demeanor of a band like U2 is bound to carry with it implications as complex as the demeanor itself; for instance, many music critics—bound to an arbitrary code of “cool”ness (read: aloofness)—tend to keep a calculated distance, whereas more non-critically oriented listeners may find themselves flocking to their enormous sound like moths to a flame.

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U2 performing “Beautiful Day”—the first encore to follow their full live performance of The Joshua Tree at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Needless to say, the demographic makeup of a U2 concert audience is a mixed bag, with a marked contingent of “non-critically oriented listeners” (I commented in passing, just prior to the start of the show at the massive Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, that I’d never seen so many audience participants wearing the official tour shirt to the concert—a generally accepted faux pas among dedicated concert-goers). Just in front of us, two forty-something women clad in tight jeans and fancy blouses devoted a good half-hour of the show’s warm-up time to snapping a puzzling, unimaginative series of “selfie” photographs with their phones; now from the left angle, now from the right. As the headliner worked their way through a powerhouse of a set, I was further confounded by one of the two women’s insistence on standing perfectly still for the duration of the performance (including the slower numbers, which provoked more embittered attendees seated behind me to instruct “okay: it’s time to chill…”), occasionally raising a hesitant arm in an apparent attempt at emotional involvement—before finally deciding against it and returning to a stance of stoic semi-engagement. It dawned on me, during this shameless exercise in people-watching—a habit I’ve never been able to break totally free from at live concerts, despite my best intentions—that the band’s audience has likely grown more and more generic (and consequently, less and less musically-informed) as the years have advanced. Strangely enough, it would appear that a band once renowned for its emotional over-zealousness, has since become a huge draw for individuals wholly detached and removed from the pure, childlike love of music this band sought to foster from the very start. But here I digress…

As far as Yours Truly is concerned, the performance could hardly have been more emotionally involving, or more existentially absorbing. From the opening guitar lines of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” to the final refrain of the downbeat Achtung Baby anthem “One,” the performance was a wholly riveting and visceral exercise in what one might call “meaningful bombast.” For there was hardly an insincere moment to be had throughout the evening (barring Beck’s more irony-laden—at least, one hopes—rap-centric performance that comprised the event’s entr’acte); and I gladly count myself among the many attendees who caught themselves singing along to every song on the album proper, along with the earlier-era numbers they chose to open with, including the stunningly powerful “Bad”—my personal favorite U2 song.


The band’s intro to the album’s explosive culmination, “Exit,” was smartly paired with an image well-known to movie lovers: a pair of clenched fists flanking the stage screen—with the letters “l-o-v-e” tattooed across one set of knuckles, and “h-a-t-e” across the other. A film clip preceding Corbijn’s re-imagined visual (inspired by Robert Mitchum’s malevolent preacher in the 1955 Charles Laughton film, Night of the Hunter) shows a beady-eyed huckster addressing a town on the subject of a great wall he plans to build to keep bad people off the streets. Earlier in the night, the band’s lead singer had subtly reconfigured a lyric in “Sunday Bloody Sunday”—from “when fact is fiction and TV reality” to “when fact is fiction and reality TV.” Contrasted with Bono’s plea throughout “Exit,” to want to “believe in the hands of love,” this early bit of foreshadowing presents one of many arrows throughout the evening pointing to the night’s emotionally pivotal close (“One”). (As for the Joshua Tree denouement, it lived up to its reputation as a truly epic showdown between Edge’s painterly guitar, Larry Mullen’s loud-soft percussion, and Adam Clayton’s deceptively versatile bass lines—weaving in and out of unison to form one of the band’s most dramatic/cinematic numbers in their entire repertoire.)

On more than one occasion, the event called to mind the Depeche Mode concert in Detroit just a couple weeks prior; not merely for the slew of music-cultural associations enumerated above, but because the pure sincerity (or sincere purity?) of both performances stands in such stark contrast to just about everything that remains of pop music. When Dave Gahan led the crowd in an acapalla sing-along to the contagiously hummable chorus of “Everything Counts” (in a goosebump-inducing reprise of the grand finale to 101), it seemed to have been drawn from the same well of energy that fueled Bono’s leading the crowd in Lucas Oil Stadium through the gospel-inflected chorus of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” When Gahan and Gore introduced their setlist with the hauntingly topical themes of “Going Backwards” (a song about “turning back our history,” “piling on the miseries,” and “counting all the casualties”), it paralleled the tense, patriotically-tinted paranoia of “Bullet the Blue Sky” (“and through the walls you hear the city groan/and outside is America…“). Unlike certain younger, more precious and precocious performers (whose names I will refrain from mentioning here, for fear of this turning into a piece of disparagement, instead of a piece in praise of a lost art), the age of these two remarkably active bands serves to enhance the convincing power of the messages buried in the texts of their songs, or hiding in plain view across their surfaces. A song as majestic as “Red Hill Mining Town” is hereby rendered even more powerful through our awareness that there are few (if any) songwriters of Bono’s age, at the time the song was recorded (which, by my count, would be 27), writing anything in the vicinity of its stately elegance.

Arguably, it is this difference—more than any other outstanding aspect of these bands’ tremendously moving and awe-inspiring tours—which sets their achievements (past and present) aside from those of the up-and-comers (and-now-they’re-goners) numbered in the contemporary pop charts. For here we have two bands from the last days of an era we might as well refer to now as “pure pop:” an era that began with Sam Cooke and The Shirelles, but burned out around the time of the debut albums by The Stone Roses and Oasis. Which isn’t to say there are no sincere pop artists left standing; but rather that the medium itself has become so contaminated with self-conscious irony and advertising obligations, it can no longer embody the wholly innocent open-mindedness it once revolved around.

And yet, walking back to our car at the close of Depeche Mode’s Detroit performance, we spot (for the second time) a pair of twenty-something hair metal kids losing their shit to a perplexing setlist booming from their truck’s stereo system—a mix that betrays no critical discrimination between The Doobie Brothers and Def Leppard. The possibility of such open-mindedness can’t help but bring a smile to one’s face. Here, I could even present myself as a case in point: having turned 30 during the same year as the U2 album I saw performed live the other night, my perspective is a generation removed from the folks who first came to know and love this music. Consequently, I can discern no un-surmountable barriers between the oft-perceived coolness of Brian Eno’s solo work, and the loud vulnerability of U2’s arena-filling anthems. They both seem (to me, at least) possessed of the same innocent open-mindedness that gave birth to the vernacular of pop music. Along with the more darkly tinted vulnerability of Depeche Mode, they embody a sort of sensual integrity that seems consistently lost in the shuffle of our increasingly incidental, soundbyte-streaming culture.

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Depeche Mode performing David Bowie’s “Heroes,” as an encore to their Spirit tour setlist in Detroit.

Digging in the recent confines of my memory, I return to that stellar performance at the Pine Knob amphitheater—and that deceptively passive incitement to “snap out of it” couched within the new Depeche Mode single (“Where’s the Revolution?”). In hindsight, it seems to me less a call to arms, and more a call to re-awaken one’s emotional engagement with the human condition. Just as Bono’s closing tributes to influential women throughout the annals of history (accompanied by the achingly beautiful high point in Achtung Baby, “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)”) read less as an act of political confrontation, and more as a genuine gesture of outward compassion to the plight of humankind; something that we, so accustomed to the cynical overtones of 45’s America (and to the passivity that produced it) may feel challenged to accept at face value.

Nonetheless, such compassion is there for the taking, spread throughout the global tours of two monumental bands who refuse to give in to the temptations of self-effacing irony—insisting instead on the primal emotional forces that propelled them to crossover success in the first place. Like John, Paul, George, and Ringo; or Keith, Charlie, and Mick; or Bruce; or Prince. Or Mavis; Nina; Marvin; and Joni. Or Stevie, Christine, and Lindsey; or Chaka; or Whitney. Like the Starman/Blackstar of pop music himself, whose “Heroes” was so lovingly and movingly recited by Dave Gahan at the closure of the band’s Pine Knob setlist (easily the finest vocal performance the frontman delivered that night; as though he had set aside a special reserve of emotional energy for this tribute, set to the simple, startling image of a black flag waving against a gray sky). At one point, Bono inserted an unexpectedly moving tribute to the late heathen of pop, as well—remarking that “nothing has changed… everything has changed.” The phrase could hardly ring truer.

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Lucas Oil Stadium fills up with expectant fans of that most successful Irish pop band, touring their most successful studio achievement.

Identifying the muses of Dirty/Clean’s ulter nation album and video project.

“Women of the world, take over
‘Cause if you don’t
The world
Will come
To an end
And it won’t take long.”
– Jim O’Rourke (from “Women of the World,” off the LP Eureka)

In the following interview, Josh Egeland questions Josh England on the subject of the latest Dirty/Clean album (ulter nation), and the music videos that have been produced in support of it. The interview took place Saturday, August 12th, over coffee and muffins. Questions asked and answers given were transcribed as closely as possible, with punctuation and parenthetical notations added for editorial purposes.

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Josh Egeland (je) interviews Josh England (JE) on the topic of Dirty/Clean’s ulter nation project.

je: So I guess we can start by reviewing the videos.

JE: Okay.

je: How would you respond to allegations of plagiarism, pillaging, or creative appropriation?

JE: That’s your leading question?

je: I think it’s a fair one.

JE: Well, when you put it that way, I guess the videos are kind of plagiaristic. They do pillage from films far greater than the music on the record, and therefore represent a form of creative appropriation. So I guess I would respond by pleading guilty.

je: So you don’t personally perceive a problem?

JE: I can understand why it might be perceived as ethically problematic by some… but no, I don’t have a problem with it. Have you been to the movies much lately?

je: Can’t say that I have…

JE: …It doesn’t appear that we’re missing much. I’ve seen a lot of contemporary film-makers not struggling hard enough to discover the possibilities their predecessors had explored decades prior. Which wouldn’t be an issue, if they’d only discover possibilities of their own. But there just doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of possibility to take in at the box office… it’s all so pre-determined now, especially the CGI stuff. The way I see it, the movies I’m “quoting” in these videos—possibly the more well-known ones, even–they’re not as widely recognized or embraced by the upcoming generation as they were by my generation, and the generations before mine. I suppose, in a way, there’s a relief to be had in the notion that younger generations can discard the cultural baggage of their ancestors; in another way, it seems to reflect a broader trend of major attention deficits. I’m not delusional enough to convince myself that, by featuring these clips in my obscure little music videos, I’ll bring about some big revival of cinephilia. But I guess I see this less as pillaging, and more as showcasing: highlighting the possibilities of a craft, which currently appears addicted to its own degradation.

je: But there are still good movies being made, no?

JE: Absolutely! But as with any number of pursuits in our advanced technological age, the butter seems to be spread out rather thinly. It’s like this remark of Brian Eno’s, from an interview with some British magazine earlier this year: the problem isn’t that there aren’t good records being made anymore, but rather, there’s too much good music out there, and no honest distribution system in place to facilitate a genuine zeitgeist (as opposed to a strategized one). But with movies, I think we’re far worse off. It’s like we went from a generation of film brats, all scrambling to fill the director’s seat, to a generation that doesn’t appear to have any real perspective on the historical weight of the craft itself.

je: And you think you’re in some kind of position to address this perceived oversight?

JE: I don’t pretend to be an expert on the matter, no. But I’ve spent more hours digesting movies than most people spend digesting food in their lifetime. Maybe that’s what seems to be missing… true love of the craft, as opposed to love of one’s own style; there’s a lot of that going around now. Did you see La La Land?

je: Yes.

JE: Case in point.

je: It wasn’t a great movie, I’ll give you that. But the intention behind it seemed noble.

JE: And that’s the problem. There’s nothing more detrimental to a good movie than a self-imposed aura of nobility.

je: But how is what you’re doing here any different? I detect a hint of self-righteous nobility in your complaint…

JE: I’m not trying to reproduce the feel of a bygone era by running off a photocopy and filling it in with new faces.

je: But you did cover a rather early OMD song on this latest Dirty/Clean record, didn’t you?

JE: That was a very personal… a very important song to me. Not just as a musician, but as a person. If you listen, there’s nothing really stylized in what we did. Our cover is straightforward and fairly removed: I made a very deliberate, very mindful decision to not come across like I was cashing in on a classic. I hope I succeeded; I mean, if it had been successful, I would’ve been embarrassed… Which is in part why it’s tacked on at the tail end of the record. At one time, it wasn’t even going to be on the record.

Official music video for “Souvenir”—a cover of the 1981 Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark single—directed by Jennifer Taylor.

je: So if you don’t view your project in line with stylistic homage, what category would you place it in? Or is there a category you feel comfortable with?

JE: I personally view our video experiment more in line with DJ culture, and other sorts of post-modern music and video production. When you think back on it, and despite its detractors, the early days of MTV saw the rise of several different approaches: straight-faced, lip-synced performance clips; “literal” music videos; and those experimental, sometimes disengaged montages of found footage. Have you seen Devo’s music video for their early song, “Mongoloid”?

je: I think so. It’s kind of literal, isn’t it?

JE: It is—but it’s also made of found footage, so it’s pretty abstract. And that’s what makes it work, as a video. It’s the surrealism behind it: the message beneath the surface. If something “found” can coincide so directly with the message in the song, then the message can’t be all that original in the first place, can it? It’s a concession of redundancy. It’s about not pretending that what you have to say is entirely original, but accepting that it’s been said before; and its strength lies in its repetition.

je: Let’s move on and talk about your selection process, in putting these videos together. How do you decide what clips are going to accompany each song?

JE: Mostly by intuition, which is how most of the songs were written. In fact, a lot of the films quoted throughout these videos provided fairly specific inspiration for the songs.

je: I imagine you’re referring to “Red Desert,” “Eclipse,” and “I.D. d’une Femme”?

JE: All of them, really. But yes—those all carry film titles in their name, so the influence of those movies could have been more prominent.

je: I can’t help but notice that the women in these films are showcased more prominently than the male protagonists, in looking at your videos. Was that deliberate?

JE: Yes and no.

je: [expectant pause]

JE: Well, to the filmmakers’ credit—all of whom, in reference to the clips selected, were men—women were showcased rather prominently in their movies. I mean, god: Monica Vitti and Antonioni… can you think of a more visually co-dependent relationship in the history of movies, between muse and director?

je: [pensive pause] Robert Altman and Shelley Duvall; Fassbinder and Schygulla; Godard and Anna Karina—and later, Anne Wiazemsky; John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands; Lynch and Laura Dern…

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David Lynch and his long-time muse, Laura Dern, appearing side-by-side in Twin Peaks: The Return. 2017 © Showtime Networks.

JE: Godard and Cassavetes both cast their wives, which is a different dynamic altogether. Altman utilized Duvall in supporting roles, often—strong ones, no doubt. And Fassbinder used an entire theater troupe’s worth of women actors, more or less as frequently as he used Hanna Schygulla; she just got paid more. Lynch has a fairly fetishistic, late-era Buñuel thing going on these days… Have you seen how he’s cast Chrysta Bell in the new Twin Peaks?

je: There is a bit of the proverbial dirty old man in him…

JE: But at least he’s upfront and transparent about it: like the Mael brothers. I’ll take that over these broad gestures of pseudo-feminist empowerment vis-a-vis male writers looking to get laid, which is what we appear to be seeing a lot of these days.

je: Let’s get back to Antonioni.

JE: Certainly. What was the question again?

je: Was it a deliberate choice, for you to showcase Monica Vitti more prominently than, say, Marcello Mastroianni or Gabriele Ferzetti?

JE: It was a deliberate choice insofar as my eye instinctively gravitated towards the scenes with Vitti, Moreau, Maria Schneider, and Daniela Silverio dominating the frame. When you watch those films—the alienation trilogy, The Passenger, and Identification of a Woman—you’re basically just waiting for the women to come back into the picture, whenever they’re not in the scene. It’s actually the entire premise in Identification of a Woman, just as it is in L’Avventura. Only Mastroianni and Jack Nicholson come anywhere close to competing with the women for our attention, as viewers. And they still fall short some of the time, in my opinion.

je: But Jack Nicholson is the protagonist in The Passenger, and Mastroianni and Moreau play the leads in La Notte. I mean, isn’t Monica Vitti only in that one party scene?

JE: Yes—the one that Pauline Kael lambasted, in multiple reviews. Have you read her take?

je: I think so…

JE: If I’m recalling correctly, she referred to Vitti’s performance as a failed parody of a Hollywood glamour girl.

je: Ouch. I take it you disagree?

JE: I don’t know that I disagree, so much as I never gave it much thought from that angle. I mean, Monica Vitti is so captivating as a performer… maybe what Kael responded to so negatively in her performances was the way that she routinely sabotages, or at least calls into question, Antonioni’s over-reaching authorship of those movies. I’ve never quite been able to determine whether she just wasn’t a very good actor, and couldn’t execute her character the way it was written, or if she was a really amazing actor, trafficking in deliberate obtuseness. I think that’s part of what makes those movies so intriguing to this day; because there are other ways in which they have not aged well.

je: I take it you’re referring to that one scene in L’Eclisse

JE: That’s certainly a prime example! And in a perverse sort of way, it’s a testament to the unstated brilliance of Vitti’s performance: you can’t quite tell whether she is personally oblivious to the culturally abhorrent implications of donning blackface, or if she’s doing a really spot-on parody of an oblivious, bougie white woman. Either way, the scene itself is lamentable, and it probably spoils an otherwise great movie for many viewers.

je: While we’re on the subject of racial representation, how would you respond if someone criticized your project as Euro-centric?

JE: I suppose I’d have to say that it is. But isn’t it sort of obvious? I mean, the CD packaging has more Italian text on the cover than it has English. But like I’ve already written and spoken about in previous interviews, that component of the project pertains very specifically to my experiences growing up in Europe, and not experiencing my homeland until many years later. I’m fairly certain that if I had reached out farther than what I’m familiar with, geographically speaking, it would’ve seemed about as forced and incoherent as one of Monica Vitti’s malapropisms.

Official music video for “Red Desert,” showcasing more of the muses who provided inspiration for the songs on ulter nation. (More muses featured in the videos for “Eclipse” and “Into the Night (Pt. I)”).

je: Let’s talk about the most recent music video, for “Red Desert.”

JE: Sure thing. What do you want to know?

je: For starters, I notice that your credits in the video description highlight all the women in the video, but you neglect to make mention of the men. And it does seem to me that Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy [in Tarkovsky’s Stalker] and Richard Harris [in Antonioni’s Red Desert] share quite a bit of screen time with the women in your video.

JE: True, but that’s beside the point. “Red Desert” is one video for which I would definitively answer “yes” to your previous question—about how deliberate my “casting” of these women might have been.

je: What are you trying to convey through this gesture?

JE: I’m not sure that I’m really trying to convey anything in particular. The video is less a statement than a summoning.

je: Not sure I follow you…

JE: It’s most obvious in the Marianne Faithfull clips from that odd little Kenneth Anger movie, Lucifer Rising. And the scenes with Monkey, Stalker’s daughter in the Tarkovsky film.

je: You’re referring to the supernatural, then?

JE: Not just the supernatural in general, but the supernatural power of women in particular, throughout the annals of history. While working on the songs for ulter nation, I was reading a lot—which I find to be very helpful, creatively—and I was struck by this chapter Marianne Faithfull has published about her experiences with Kenneth Anger. It was for her second autobiography, called Dreaming My Dreams. Have you read it?

je: I believe so.

JE: It’s a great read. I think I like it even better than the first one. There’s this chapter where she recounts the full story of how she was living on this wall in Soho, strung out on heroin, and Kenneth Anger showed up and invited her to fly with him to Egypt to play [mythical figure] Lilith in one of his experimental movies. She did the part, but then realized, as she was crawling through a Muslim graveyard with Max Factor blood dripping off of her, that maybe it wasn’t such a great idea. She paints a more broadly desecrating picture of Kenneth in that first biography, but enough time seems to have passed by the time she revisits the story in her second book… she seems a little less one-sided on the matter. But she still seems affected by the fact that he placed some lame little curse on her, after she published that first tell-all.

je: She has had an awfully challenging few decades since then…

JE: Yeah, but she’s survived, hasn’t she? I mean, tomorrow isn’t a given thing, and the reaper will eventually pay us all a visit. But getting back to my initial point, I think Marianne Faithfull is a testament to the resiliency of humankind—and of women, specifically. I wanted to highlight that in the video for “Red Desert.” It’s a song that takes, as inspiration, my perception of women as having been trapped, all throughout history, in a man-made machine fueled by this primal fear of what might happen if they were unleashed. Like in Red Desert, where this incredibly engaging woman lives out a perfectly unnecessary, meaningless existence—in a landscape that’s been depleted of natural resources and coated in smog. Looking back, I think a lot of really great critics, like Pauline Kael, voiced their anger and disdain for this movie out of an incredulity that such a premise could ever come to fruition. It may be one of the first truly convincing, fully-realized dystopian films… a sort of antidote to Buñuel’s utopian vision of Robinson Crusoe.

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Monica Vitti rules the screen in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964). © renewed 2010, Criterion Collection.

je: [pause] Yeah, I can’t think of anything made prior to it that is comparable, at least in that regard. There’s a lot of dystopian motifs at play in the works of German Expressionists, but few are convincing from the standpoint of realism. And in looking at the clips you used in the music video, it does seem as though Antonioni’s film carries a pretty startling visual resonance—considering our current cultural and ecological circumstances.

JE: It totally resonates today. Because here we are thinking, “how much worse will things get, if, or when the effects of climate change become irreversible and totally relentless?” The movie itself came out around the same time the worldwide ecological movement started gaining momentum. You know, those years following the ravages of World War II, when the costs of environmental disregard started showing. But it seems to me there was a lot of complacency at the time—even within the movement. Which isn’t to say people didn’t really care about the environment, only that folks couldn’t easily appreciate the full ramifications of what all was at stake. Not as easily as we can now.

je: But aren’t ecological issues universal? I mean, they affect men just as eminently as…

JE: …women, and children; and cats, dogs; bees and plants. Of course they do. But we seem to be perched at a point in history where progressive politics—if they actually are going to persevere, and don’t just crumble in on themselves—will face a self-imposed choice between identity politics and environmental politics. And I sense an inherent danger at this intersection: that by quarantining social issues in order to focus on the “bigger picture,” we may still lose the war, and our social problems will only have gotten worse.

je: …Having lost the battle and the war simultaneously.

JE: Exactly. I mean, if we can’t all even brings ourselves peaceably live together on this planet, why try to save it?

je: And conversely, if we can’t bring ourselves to save the planet, why bother living peaceably together?

JE: They’re mutually dependent clauses. I think that’s something Antonioni implied, intentionally or inadvertently, in the text of Red Desert. The implications of the dilemma are totally discomfiting, and I can appreciate why someone like Pauline Kael would be miffed by a premise this bleak. When you consider the potential for nurturing and painting the environment you want to live in through artistic expression, it’s as if Antonioni did the exact opposite, while at the same time displaying a sort of willingness to put up with this uninhabitable world he created. Like Monica Vitti, he leaves us wondering about the degree of intended irony in his performance, as director. But deep down, I believe he was rooting for humanity. I think if he had been a total cynic, he would have just filmed buildings and left the people out altogether.

je: I believe Fassbinder made the same argument, in response to those allegations of misogyny: that a true misogynist wouldn’t even feature women in their movie.

JE: Yeah… looking back on that one, it’s an over-simplified retort, but it still rings true. I mean, I think the most popular form of misogyny these days is of the “I want women to exist, but only as pregnancy vessels” variety; you know, the whole Handmaid’s Tale, Mike Pence sort of thing.

je: There’s also a troubled history within the gay community…

JE: Yes. Men seem to be a recurring problem in this picture, don’t they? I mean, there have been truly militant, men-hating women throughout history…

je: You mean Valerie Solanas?

JE: Yeah, that whole SCUM Manifesto clique. But historically, most of the world’s sexist rancor seems to come from the other side of the gender spectrum—the side with the most inherited economic power.

je: An interesting point, but I fear we’re getting side-tracked. Let’s get back to that bit about summoning…

JE: Okay, shoot.

je: What do you see as the relationship between Monkey, Marianne, Julianne Moore, Monica Vitti, and Jane Bowles (as played by Debra Winger)?

JE: Apart from the fact that they all acted as my muses during this project, I think they are all women whose presence on-screen seems to summon an other-ness, an untapped energy—something beyond everyday, superficial gestures of power.

je: Please explain.

JE: Take Marianne, for instance. I mean, she was at (or near) her very lowest in that Kenneth Anger film. But she steals the movie, when you look at it today. All the other expressions of mystical occultism in the picture seem pretty hokey now, but she was an outsider from the start, and she carries that with her throughout her scenes. Even as a homeless woman strung out on heroin, she was able to project something way more powerful than all the other kitschy, ponderous gestures of magic in Anger’s movies. When she sobered up and started putting out these wonderful records, I think it became apparent just how under-estimated she had been, creatively speaking, in her formative years. Back when Kenneth Anger could be held up as this great, subversive film-maker, but Marianne could only be seen as a rich, spoiled junkie. I mean, that was hardly ever the public’s perception of Mick, and he had far more auspicious beginnings…

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Mick and Marianne, cotton candy in hand; photographed in the late 1960s by Jonathan Stone (date and location unknown).

je: And then there was the whole “Sister Morphine” debacle…

JE: Yeah. But they worked that one out eventually: I think there were some pretty pragmatic implications at play in her exclusion from the original songwriting credit—something to do with the Stones’ publishing arrangement. But the outcome didn’t reflect the nuances at play. She wasn’t really perceived to be a creative contributor to the Stones by most people, at the time.

je: So by featuring only her scenes from Lucifer Rising in the “Red Desert” video, are you attempting to restore some kind of artistic merit to her legacy?

JE: I don’t know that I would go that far… I mean, hasn’t she already done that for herself, several times over? She’s that rare sort of artist, whose records just seem to get better as years go by.

je: Good one.

JE: The pun wasn’t intentional. Horses and High Heels and Give My Love to London are truly amazing records.

je: And Before the Poison. And Kissin’ Time

JE: And Vagabond Ways: her reading of “Tower of Song”…

je: We’re getting side-tracked again.

JE: Rightly so.

je: Let’s talk about the other women in the video—Jane Bowles and Julianne Moore, for instance.

JE: Sure. Jane Bowles was this amazingly ahead-of-her-time fiction writer, whose work was largely eclipsed at the time by the popularity of her husband’s writing.

je: Paul Bowles.

JE: Yes. He hit it pretty big with The Sheltering Sky, but Jane had published her novel, Two Serious Ladies, some years prior. And Two Serious Ladies is arguably a much smarter novel, and maybe more prescient, in terms of literary evolution. It’s this wonderful, counter-hedonistic tale of two women vacationing together in Panama: they basically go searching for squalor, and then wind up in all these unnecessarily dangerous situations.

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Jane Bowles, photographed for Vogue magazine in 1946.

je: I’ve read it. It’s a very different sort of book, I’ll give you that.

JE: I think it’s one of John Waters’ favorites.

je: That would make sense.

JE: As for Julianne Moore, the scenes featured in our video are from a movie she did with Todd Haynes in the ’90s, called Safe.

je: A deeply unsettling movie-going experience, if ever there was one.

JE: It’s a challenging movie, to be sure. But it’s brilliantly subversive.

je: As I recall, you never really find out what caused her character’s illness, or whether it was psycho-somatically induced.

JE: Exactly. Like Picnic at Hanging Rock; or those really abstract noirs, like Laura. But it’s also subversive in its portrayal gender dynamics, and its dismantling of character stereotypes. For instance, there’s this therapist at the desert resort she goes to, played by Peter Friedman. When you first discover that he has HIV/AIDS, you’re naturally compelled to sympathize with him, as a character. I mean, Safe came out just two years after Jonathan Demme taught movie-goers that individuals living with AIDS are still people: at the time, that was a pretty radical idea to be conveyed through mainstream channels.

je: Through Tom Hanks, no less!

JE: Exactly! Even though he’d done Bosom Buddies and Bachelor Party, he’d earned a pretty straight-laced, non-delinquent reputation by the time of Philadelphia. And that performance set in motion a shift in public perception, in viewing people who live with HIV/AIDS. Hanks’s performance provoked viewers to sympathize, but in a really pitiful way; which I guess is the first step towards developing empathy for the plight of others, but it barely scratches the surface.

je: I think the proximity in time, between Demme’s film and the epidemic that wiped out the gay community in so many American cities, played a pretty significant role in the movie’s sentimentalized codes.

JE: I can only imagine how fresh those wounds must have been… But I also think there were some apparent detriments in the selection of Hanks, and in his subsequent characterization of Andrew Beckett. It wound up a little stilted in the direction of talking down to your audience. It also seems, in some ways, to echo that terrible phrase, “the deserving poor:” Hanks was seen by many at the time as “the deserving homo.” But this openly queer filmmaker [Todd Haynes] came along just two years later, subverting a fairly recently developed audience expectation with the character of Peter, who has the same illness but isn’t entirely sympathetic. Suddenly, the audience has to confront this culturally normalized, cognitive fallacy: the ridiculous idea that people living with illnesses—and specifically, individuals living with HIV/AIDS—are by default pitiful and apologetic.

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Julianne Moore as Carol White, the confined protagonist of Todd Haynes’s early masterwork, Safe (1995). © Sony Pictures Classics.

je: Wouldn’t you say that Moore’s character comes across as pitiful at times?

JE: For sure! But it’s what you read into it; what you project, as a viewer. If you study her performance, which is a tour de force, you’ll notice she doesn’t really do a whole lot, in terms of positive character reinforcement. She’s just this slow-moving negative space, incapable of finding fulfillment within the shitty environment she’s entrapped by. And Peter winds up being this sort of oppressive male figure—flying in the face of what we’ve been conditioned to expect; especially when you consider that the author is a gay man.

je: What about Monkey, the daughter in Stalker?

JE: Like Marianne Faithfull in Lucifer Rising, she’s the real star of that movie, if you ask me.

je: Not a convincing assessment, if one were to judge by screen time. She appears in just a fraction of the movie’s three-hour running length.

JE: Screen time isn’t entirely relevant when considering who’s the star of a picture. Who do you see as the star in Blade Runner?

je: Harrison Ford[?]

JE: See, that’s where you’re wrong. It’s Rutger Hauer’s movie: Harrison Ford’s detective is only there—and I mean this narratively as well as interpretively—to lead you to Roy Batty. Who is, like Julianne and Monica’s characters, an entrapped outsider.

Official music video for “Into the Night (Pt. II),” featuring the entrapped outsider of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982): Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer).

je: As far as I can recall, however, Monkey isn’t much of an “entrapped” figure in Stalker.

JE: It is implied that she’s living with a physical disability. In this way, she’s entrapped by the limitations of her movement. Which she later succeeds in compensating for—or overcompensating for—through telepathy. I mean, if you really break it down, the girl who plays Monkey in Stalker makes the entire movie: visuals aside, I find the journey with the three men kind of tedious at times—which I’m sure was intentional on Tarkovsky’s part. But as far as entertainment goes, the movie succeeds because it saves the payoff for that very last scene. And Monkey is the payoff.

je: You certainly get a lot of mileage out of that scene in your video.

JE: It’s just an incredible piece of finished film, and I couldn’t pull myself away from it in the editing stage. And Natasha Abramova totally sells it: the magic of the scene; the mystery.

je: She looks kind of bored.

JE: Well, as with your reading of Julianne Moore, that’s just a projection. She doesn’t have to project a specific thought or idea in the scene, because all the scene seems to require is her presence—her aura. Like Marina Abramović, or Joan Crawford, Abramova’s presence is so far greater than the limitations of the medium. I think a lot of men who are filmmakers scramble to bottle this essence within the vessel of their movie—not always malevolently, mind you—but so often we’re left wanting more than what they were able, or willing to capture.

© 2010 Scott Ruddwww.scottruddphotography.com scott.rudd@gmail.com

Marina Abramović, being present (from her 2010 installation, The Artist Is Present).

je: So it sounds like this focus on women may have been more intentional than you led me to believe at first.

JE: Could be, I don’t know. Does it really matter?

je: In a sense, I think it does. I mean, don’t you think that restoring women’s perspectives within the arts is a job best done…

JE: By women? If we’re going to state the obvious, this entire project amounts to nothing more than a fledgling attempt at expressing my view of the world we live in.

je: Glad to hear you’re not posing as a provocateur. That would’ve been embarrassing for us both.

JE: If I’m trying to prove a point through this project, it’s how the history of women in film–which is chronically troubled by cases of women being sexualized and abused; having to adopt men’s names, just to get the writing credit they’d earned as a woman; not getting to express their creative vision with the same sort of unrestricted leeway granted their male counterparts—is frequently a history of confinement. Which echoes the history of womankind. There’ve been all these great performances, and films made by women throughout history; but we’re left wondering just how [emph. added] much more illuminating these works could’ve been if the power deferential in our society weren’t so unevenly distributed along gender lines.

je: Isn’t that a fairly broad statement, artistically speaking?

JE: It’s broad, because there’s a broader truth in it. But there is another, more specific truth that I’m trying to comprehend in all this: and that’s the growing absence of subversiveness in the arts. That seems, to me, a bona fide cultural problem right now.

je: How so?

JE: Well, for starters, it’s made for a pretty lame and increasingly confined reality, as of late. Nobody seems to be making any real waves, unless they engage in acts of brutal violence, or sacrifice themselves at the reality television altar.

je: Have you considered that may just be the cost of contemporary comfort? I mean, with all the wealth and the luxury we’ve acquired in our society, there seems to be less and less of a call for subversiveness.

JE: That is a factor, no doubt about it. But it doesn’t seem to entirely account for the bigger problem, either. After all, income inequality is at an all-time high; increasingly consolidated corporations continue to own and buy up everything in sight. There’s plenty for people to be upset about in the socio-political arena, yet all of it—the instigators, the responders, the counter-attacks—seems trapped in this disorienting veneer of reality television. And all of our movies seem to be paraphrasing some kind of past, whether actual or non-existent: they’re either nostalgia pieces or superhero remakes, a lot of them taking place during the time of the “greatest generation.” And I’m not saying it’s all bad by default, but it’s getting kinda old; and the redundancy only serves to draw one’s attention to how much money they always feel compelled to spend, the second and third time around…

je: But doesn’t social unrest often breed nostalgia and escapism, as an alternative to dealing head-on with the real issues?

JE: For sure! And comfort is the antithesis of anarchy. But I think the level of complacency we’re seeing is basically a direct extension of our technological comfort, as opposed to reflecting our essential creature comforts. Which is fairly new, in evolutionary terms. I mean, I imagine there must be a lot of people out there who, if they were forced to choose between clothing or shelter, and having a smartphone—they’d take the phone.

je: That might provide the basis for an interesting study…

JE: It would, but I don’t think people really want to know the answer. We’re all afraid to admit how much we’ve been afflicted by technological addiction; and it’s been rapidly changing the way we all think, feel, and communicate with each other. It’s also changed the way we view one another—either strengthening or challenging our perceptions of each other. For instance, there was that moment of shock, when the breakdown of voters in the 2016 election came out, and we learned that a majority of white women voted for this disgusting, misogynistic caricature that we now have to live with for four years.

je: That was rather alarming.

JE: It was… But then I was equally alarmed by how quickly people turned around and criticized women for a tragedy that’s been playing itself out for centuries now: the tragedy of people being told not to be themselves, over and over, to the point where they start following the negative instruction. And it’s all kinds of people: women, gay people, trans-gendered people, people of color… In a way, I think mainstream progressivism is frequently culpable of a similar offense—only from the more informed end of the spectrum, and in a more constructive fashion: they often tell people how to speak, how to act. Which isn’t the best approach, either.

je: A rose by another name?

JE: Not really. I mean, there’s no comparing the fascistic, idiotic, and reactionary rhetoric of the present-day right wing, to the Lean Cuisine progressivism of the present-day left. But taking into account the advanced technology we’ve been armed and mobilized with, it’s become that much easier to convince millions of people to fall in line: to stop thinking for themselves and to silence their own subversive thoughts—which is even less arduous, for the powers that be, than forcing them into silence. It’s like that thing Pasolini said in one of those late interviews, around the time he made Salò: that bit about politicians displaying a tolerance as vast as it is false.

je: Like that picture—the one with 45 waving the rainbow flag…

JE: Exactly! And look how many gay men fell for it. I mean, it’s sad and disappointing, but it’s also a reminder of the overarching human problem at play here. I mean, identity politics are so prominent and so profoundly important right now, and there’s no reason to downplay them. But there’s also the broader consideration that human minds are being bought and sold every day by algorithms and advertisements: and most of the time, we’re totally oblivious to it.

je: Like all the people whose votes were bought by savvy researchers at Cambridge Analytica.

JE: …Or the consumers who only want to see movies or buy records—that is, if they still spend money on music—when they have a certain rating on Rotten Tomatoes, or have earned a certain baseline of shares and likes from their friends on social media. Which is so weird to me, because there’s this unprecedented access to the widest array of media on the internet, and yet the majority of consumers appear to be stuck inside the same handful of pre-determined pathways; whether it’s the Huffington Post, Breitbart, Vice, Marc Maron, or the guy with the big glasses who reviews music on YouTube. Not that I have a problem with Marc Maron; he seems like a really nice guy.

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Still from Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film, Koyaanisqatsi. © renewed 2012, Criterion Collection.

je: But wouldn’t you say there’s a more eclectic range of content and feedback on the internet, than there used to be in print?

JE: In quantifiable terms, yes. But you wouldn’t guess it by glancing through the first dozen or so search results. We’ve gone from one extreme to the other—from not having enough options to having too many options. And as a society, we’ve failed to establish any kind of real balance in our information hierarchy. It’s the prophecy of Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, fulfilled: a “life out of balance.” We can all see how it’s resulted in a lot of lowest common denominator communication—along with millions of people rehashing the same ideas over and over, not recognizing how they’ve been outmoded or disproven on any number of prior occasions. It all seems so tedious. I can only hope the previously foreseen possibilities of a one-way internet model appear less enticing to those who developed it, now that the worst of these possibilities are being actualized on a minute-by-minute basis.

je: What would you say are the positive possibilities that aren’t being actualized, artistically speaking?

JE: Honestly, I think the best we can hope for within the Berners-Lee system—as opposed to the Ted Nelson system, which would’ve been two-way, and would’ve preserved context—is post-modernist pastiche. It’s the only school of contemporary art that’s ironic enough to match the confused, constrictive implications of the World Wide Web. I mean, post-modernists used to get criticized in a lot of art circles—maybe they still do—for closing themselves off to more “genuine” modes of communication, and behaving as though irony were the only viable tone of creative communication. Then there were filmmakers, like Lynch and Almodóvar, who started pushing the limits of post-modernism in their movies—channeling this fairly surreal, but not-totally-insincere sort of melodrama that nearly took the medium to a new level, artistically speaking. I mean, we still have yet to live up to the possibilities revealed by Godard and Kieslowski; even Ophuls. But considering the state of the arts in 2017—not to mention the state of arts criticism—I’d settle for a revival of post-modernist irony at this point. Hell: I’d settle for just about any clearly stated artistic theory in the popular arts, at this point!

je: Let’s remember: Moonlight did win the Best Picture Academy Award this year.

JE: Yeah, that really was a beautiful thing… even though it probably wouldn’t have happened had 45 not been elected, which is a confoundingly sad thought. But you’re right: we must find hope somewhere.

je: Indeed. And besides, there’s nothing left to post-modernize.

JE: Touché.

* * *

stalker-scena-finale

Natasha Abramova plays Monkey, Stalker’s daughter in Tarkovsky’s acclaimed 1979 masterpiece. © renewed 2017, Criterion Collection.

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