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a contemporary reading of The Marriage of Maria Braun

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Hanna Schygulla confronts a history of patriarchy, racism, and genocide in the surprisingly comedic film masterpiece, The Marriage of Maria Braun. Now available in a new 4K restoration from Arrow Home Video (UK/Region B). © 1979, Westdeutscher Rundfunk.

The Marriage of Maria Braun ends with one of the most unforgettably jarring sequences in modern cinema. After attending a reading of the will for her deceased business partner (and one-time lover), the film’s titular character—a career-topping, bravura performance by Hanna Schygulla—steps into the kitchen, to light a cigarette from a stove-top burner. Not realizing she left the gas on the last time she had lit up, Mr. and Mrs. Braun both go up in flames, inside the house she slaved away the film’s entire duration to finance and furnish. With barely a second to register the shock of this sudden and fairly calamitous conclusion to the film’s engrossing narrative, Fassbinder boldly stamps the film’s end credits across the screen immediately after the explosion—with the film’s coda (the attorney and another beneficiary, having stepped out the front door just in time, quickly turn around and gasp in horror) playing out in the background.

Superficially, the finale constitutes a real shocker: one could argue it as a perverse variation on the deus ex machina, in which the protagonists are “saved” from the slow and silent death of their bourgeois existence (or one could engage in heated debate about whether or not the move was intentional on Maria’s part). On second viewing, however, it becomes apparent that not only does Fassbinder plant seeds of foreshadowing throughout (e.g. the multitude of scenes in which we see Maria lighting her cigarette on the stove; or the slightly paradoxical image of her pouring cold water over her wrist, in an apparent prelude to suicide, mere minutes before the final explosion), but that furthermore, the entire picture makes clearest sense when read as a comedy. A profoundly irreverent and socially subversive one, at that; but aren’t all great comedies? And is it not possible that Fassbinder took inspiration for this diabolical denouement (which was not present in Peter Märthesheimer original scenario) from the greatest—and darkest—dark comedy yet projected on the big screen, Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb?

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Maria Braun, lighting one of her last cigarettes from the kitchen stove-top. © 1979, Westdeutscher Rundfunk.

Setting aside speculation, what has been made apparent to this viewer by the text of this truly remarkable film—which merits inclusion on any list of great films released in the 20th century, as well as topping the list of Fassbinder’s own greatest achievements (although there are many contenders to choose from)—is Fassbinder’s uncanny ability for manipulating dramatic forms and genres; conveying radical ideas within a widely accessible medium, and restoring purpose to dramatic forms that have been stripped of their social significance through decades of authorial misuse. In The Marriage of Maria Braun, Fassbinder places his usual emphasis on the absurdity of social conventions, in order to raise the viewer’s awareness of their own enslavement—all the while exaggerating the punchlines beyond the parameters of superficial amusement. It’s hard not to chuckle, for instance, at the sight of Fassbinder in a cameo role as a black marketeer; or to laugh knowingly at Schygulla’s response, when asked if she might be interested in a collection of (German philosopher/dramatist) Heinrich von Keist’s writings: “Books burn too fast, and they don’t warm you up.” And it’s harder yet to distance ourselves from the pragmatism that underlies the absurdity of his characters’ situation, seeing as how it is the same pragmatism that underlies the entirety of modern existence in the so-called “developed” world.

If Maria Braun represents an ideal comic representation of mid-twentieth century ennui, one can only scratch one’s head as to what the 21st century equivalent might be. In the medium of film, the genre appears to have been primarily co-opted by sketch comedians, and perpetrators of that most dreaded cinematic invention of all: the “high concept” movie. Certain contemporary filmmakers, including voices as eclectic as Mike White, Judd Apotow, Greta Gerwig, and Jordan Peele, have tackled the genre from a slightly more idiosyncratic angle; but much of our mainstream comedy fare remains grounded in a soundbyte-oriented definition of comedy as a situational experience, as opposed to the broader definition of comedy as existential experience. White has proven an exception to this rule—with works such as the HBO series Enlightened and the Selma Hayek vehicle Beatriz at the Dinner pushing the laughs aside, in favor of bleak desperation and post-post-modern angst; and Peele has garnered significant accolades and audience super-fandom for his depiction of racial tensions in his Oscar-winning directorial debut (Get Out), though one could pose the argument that he settles too easily for ideological clichés and formulaic horror tropes—as opposed to pushing the more radical undercurrents of the film’s subject matter. In both instances, we find artists consigning themselves to an either/or dilemma between hope and despair; comedy and horror; provoking thought and proselytizing.

By comparison, Maria Braun remains—in all its cinematographic luster (courtesy of the late, great Michael Ballhaus) and historical incisiveness (courtesy of Fassbinder’s commitment to doing his homework, at all times)—a viable alternative to the polemical standards of comedic storytelling currently trending. Asked to choose between converting the viewer’s attitudes and provoking the viewer’s thought process, Fassbinder inspires independent thought as a vehicle for behavioral conversion; torn between comedy and horror, Fassbinder settles on melodrama as the ultimate popular genre—painting everything in bold colors and brushstrokes, then letting the audience decide whether to laugh or shriek. Finally, at the crossroads of hope and despair, Fassbinder chooses anarchy; carving out the shortest path between two points, and revealing the roundabout nature of mankind’s often senseless travails. Like the Marx Brothers before him (arguably his closest and least frequently acknowledged cinematic relatives), RWF betrays no agenda for social change in his film texts: instead of telling us what we need to change (or how), he accepts that the ultimate purpose of comedy is to reveal society as-is to be little more than one big farce. Unlike the Marx Brothers, who seemed content with savaging social conventions only to end up reinforcing them, Fassbinder was fed up and ready for a bigger change. And while his work has noticeably inspired contemporary queer filmmakers, from John Waters to Todd Haynes to Wong Kar-Wai, there’s an apparent scarcity of post-’70s film efforts dedicated to pushing radical liberal thought through popular genre forms (interestingly enough, the most successful efforts appear to have been in television: such as Norman Lear’s Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and All in the Family, or more recently, Roseanne).

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Roseanne Barr and John Goodman revive their widely beloved (and occasionally reviled) characters in the ABC sitcom, Roseanne. © 2018, ABC.

Though he frequently exhibited a hot-tempered impatience in his personal life, RWF displays a practically infinite patience throughout his work: always willing to break down the mechanisms of social oppression into ever-smaller moving parts (for ease of comprehension), one is hard-pressed to find a filmmaker in the 20th century as dedicated to making the world a better place. (A reality that often gets lost in popular interpretations of his work; including the exhausting documentary, The Story of Film: An Oddyssey by Mark Cousins, in which the writers focus primarily on allegations of misogyny in the artist’s personal relationships—before transposing these allegations onto his work; highlighting only The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, and ignoring the entirety of his remaining forty-odd films and television programmes). Realizing early on in his dramatic career that progressive cinema stood on the verge of atrophy via overly cerebral discourse (Godard and Pasolini) and increasingly esoteric forms (Antonioni and Resnais), Fassbinder took a prescient and decisive step back in the direction of a more universal film language. (Pasolini followed this move some years later, with his Trilogy of Life, only to feel betrayed by consumerist imitators and return to a more overtly radical cinema in his final epitaph). And as our present-day cinema persists in reinforcing the divide between art and commerce, it’s a move that merits study and, quite possibly, repetition.

In order for the reader to fully appreciate the brilliance of The Marriage of Maria Braun, a preliminary viewing of Fassbinder’s recently re-discovered TV mini-series, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, may first be in order. And considering how rarely this obscure work of Fassbinder’s had been screened outside of his homeland (up until this past year’s Arrow Home Video release), an international critical re-evaluation of Maria Braun—among other later works in the director’s filmography—could make for an interesting and illuminating dialogue. Frequently blacklisted by contemporary critics as a self-hating homosexual pessimist, Fassbinder is seen at his most bouyant, hopeful, and resilient in Eight Hours. Even after one takes into account his proposed follow-up episodes to the five installments he produced, in which things were slated to take a darker (dare I say, more Fassbinderian) turn, it’s difficult to dismiss the radiant joy of Luise Ulrich’s Oma, Werner Finck’s Gregor, or Schygulla’s Marion. More than any of his other works—televisual or otherwise—Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day is the work of a filmmaker fully convinced by his characters’ ability to transcend the belittling dynamics of their circumstances.

In this context—and following a run of increasingly bleak portraits authored by the filmmaker mid-decade (Fox and His Friends; Fear of Fear; I Only Want You To Love Me; In a Year of 13 Moons)—The Marriage of Maria Braun presents one of the most resilient characters in the Fassbinder universe. Not unlike Erwin/Elvira before her (in 13 Moons), Maria Braun is a woman oppressed by generationally perpetuated societal constructs. But whereas the personal turmoil that lay beneath the surface of 13 Moons (whose premise was inspired by the suicide of Fassbinder’s lover, Armin Meier) contributed to an intensely impassioned work, in which the line separating individual villainy from broader mechanisms of oppression was often blurred beyond recognition, the formally mannered melodrama of Maria Braun allows for a more advanced level of intellectual and emotional clarity. Which isn’t to say that passion is withheld from Maria Braun; but instead of enmeshing his characters in the dark web of his own private passions and hang-ups, here he permits the protagonist to revel in passions of her own. In this and other regards, The Marriage of Maria Braun can be argued as the most explicitly feminist work he ever produced.

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Maria Braun waits in the rubble of war-torn Germany for the unlikely return of her husband. © 1979, Westdeutscher Rundfunk.

Maria Braun is as passionate a character as you’re likely to find in the films of Fassbinder. Married to a German solider (Hermann Braun, played by Klaus Löwitsch) for one day, after which he is sent off to fight in the trenches of WWII, Maria spends the first half of the movie standing on the platform to the nearest train station; a sandwich-board, bearing her husband’s name and photo, slung over her body—to solicit information from passersby who might have the details of his death or survival. When she finally decides to throw in the towel, discarding the sign on the railway tracks and heading to the American G.I. bar for some action, no viewer can reasonably bring themself to blame her for betraying her marital vows. (And a couple scenes later, Maria is informed by a friend’s husband—just returned home from the front—that her beloved Hermann has, in fact, died in battle). Confronted with the stark and powerful imagery of dilapidated streets and buildings—places where people once lived and raised families, turned to rubble by tanks and air raids—the viewer cannot help but recognize the tragicomic absurdity of Maria’s situation (let alone the absurdity of the institution of marriage, as perpetuated by the patriarchal lineage of Western lawmakers). This is the second major precipitating moment in the film’s comedic chain reaction—the first being its titular wedding.

Over the course of the picture’s two-hours-and-spare-change runtime—unfolding briskly and economically—Maria Braun finds herself (and her passions) repeatedly cornered by twists of fate that might never have occurred, if not for the man-made boundaries and expectations imposed upon her. First, she experiences forbidden love with a somewhat older, African-American G.I. (Bill, played gracefully by George Eagles), who teaches her English and loves her with an evident tenderness. Forsaken by the racist and ageist “civilization” by which she is surrounded, Maria is again befuddled when her thought-to-be-deceased husband returns home—alive and in one piece (apparently, her friend’s husband was privy to false information). True to comic form, his return coincides with a sequence of playful lovemaking between Maria and Bill. Pushing the absurdity of the scenario even further—until it reaches the fundamentally absurd parameters of credibility itself—Maria breaks a bottle over her lover’s head, knocking him dead to the bedroom floor. (Sped up and stripped of its synced sound and full frontal nudity, it might’ve made for a memorable bit in a silent Chaplin comedy).

Episodic dominoes continue to tumble, as Hermann chooses to take the blame for his wife’s crime, rather than endure an in-detail spoken testimony from Maria on the subject of her inter-racial affair. With Hermann sentenced to an indefinite amount of time in prison, Maria finds herself back at home (“without a man”), with a yearning desire to make it up to her husband; a desire that is shown, in the unfolding drama, to be part social imposition, and part genuine passion (ultimately, is there a difference?) Studied dialecticians both, Schygulla and Fassbinder appear in this film to be more psychically and theoretically attuned than in any of their other collaborations—some of which were amateurish (Rio Das Mortes, The Niklashausen Journey), most of which were good (Lili Marleen, Pioneers in Ingolstatsd), and a number of which were spectacular (The Third Generation, Effi Briest, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, and Eight Hours, to name but a few). But only in Maria Braun and Eight Hours do we find Schygulla and Fassbinder bending overtly towards love. For in both works, the creators seem to be banking—albeit obliquely; tongue occasionally planted in cheek—on the possibility of transcending the oppressive bullshit of humanity.

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Irm Hermann (foreground) and Hanna Schygulla (background) work to transcend the bullshit of humanity in Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day. © 2017, Arrow Home Video.

We see it in the crucial penultimate scene, in which the will and testament of Schygulla’s deceased business partner (Karl Oswald, played by Ivan Desny) stipulates her as a shared beneficiary with her “wronged” husband. For while Oswald had only met Hermann once before (during a prison visit), he has projected his own unrequited love for Maria onto Hermann, subsequently choosing to subsidize Hermann’s existence upon his release. Recognizing in Maria’s husband a devotion that she, herself, reserves for Hermann in the final act (a devotion which will accompany her to the grave, unstated and unrewarded), Oswald appears driven by a combination of patriarchal impulses and personal pride to take Maria down a notch. And as they listen to his condemnation of Maria’s perceived coldness, the camera lingers on the couple’s faces (Maria’s in particular), revealing a shared response of sadness: sadness at the implication that one might have loved the other any more or less than they themselves were loved. (I feel compelled here to highlight the simple joy produced in this scene, as we are granted the frequently censored opportunity to watch a character think on-screen.) All told, Maria is shown to have been most persistently oppressed, by a multitude of social institutions (including the very manner in which her husband feels compelled to express his “love:” possessively and apologetically). In this moment of clarity, we—viewers and protagonist alike—experience a genuine breakthrough; and while Maria is ultimately driven to despair by her circumstances (and by the life choices they have inspired), her inertia makes room for the viewer’s own emancipation.

Taken at face value, the ending to Maria Braun’s saga may seem an unwarranted after-thought. But in the realm of the Sirkian melodrama, nothing can be taken at face value—least of all the ending: for the more incredulous and tacked-on the conclusion, the more urgent the viewer’s responsibility to read through the lines of its manufactured essence; to identify the reality beneath the facade—the truth that social convention will not allow to be spoken aloud in polite company (most commonly represented by the “happily ever after” motif, which masks the unlikeliness of utopia being achieved in real life). Under these conditions, the question then becomes: What truth is being withheld by the ending to Maria Braun? Multiple interpretations hold up to scrutiny; in this writer’s opinion, it is a somewhat shocking (considering the source) acceptance of the possibility that people might actually live happily ever after. At least, it’s as absurd—and therefore plausible—an outcome as the next.

A precursor to the “women’s lib” and “free love” movements, women like Maria Braun—who most certainly existed in the days of the Economic Miracle, by all historical (and hereditary) accounts—represent the more progressive side of re-education in the wake of WWII. This movement was prompted by a younger generation (the children of Maria Braun), compelled towards an understanding of the horror to which so many of their ancestors paid witness (and in which many were complicit), and by their longing for a world stripped of the factors that made the horrors of the holocaust possible in the first place (namely: the dual evils of mass industry and mass ideology). The finest and most influential voices of this generation would go on to shape utopian cultural movements for decades to come.

For many of this new generation, Germany had re-experienced Year Zero. Things had to change; or else, what good were any of them? Radical trends, both superficial and profound, ensued in all areas of the New German youth culture. From music (Can, Kraftwerk, Cluster) to film (Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Volker Schlöndorff), from literature (Gunther Grass and the Vergangenheitsbewältigung movement) to theater (Action-theater and Anti-theater; in both of which Fassbinder played a significant role), a sea change was palpably taking place. And as with most movements, politics would lag behind, eventually catching up out of necessity; for a government can only be as functional or as deplorable as the culture out of which it has formed. Indeed, there was plenty in the immediate post-war period that remained lamentable—both culturally and politically speaking. Inundated by so-called schlager-rock, dumb b-movies masquerading as high art, and former Nazis being (re-)elected into office, the kids of the German New Wave collectively realized that something had to give before they could evolve as (a) people.

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Legendary music innovators Can took Germany (and the world) by storm during the decade of the New German Cinema. Circa 1972; photo credit unknown.

This provocation for change would have its more violent exhibitions, such as in the notorious Baader Meinhof/RAF incident and the emergence of neo-nazi subcultures; but it would also yield such tender works of art as the film subject of this essay. A work that shares an equal love for mankind and womankind (and all in between), while simultaneously pointing to the oppressive mechanisms—instilled from one generation to the next; cycling through phases of industry, depression, and recovery—that render this utopian love such a challenging concept to maintain. After all, if it weren’t for war, Maria may never have thrown her husband’s picture onto the railroad tracks; or engaged in a romance with an American soldier; or adopted all the negative and aggressive (and predominantly male-generated) cultural traits of the corporate mentality. And if it weren’t for marriage, this whole soap opera wouldn’t even have existed.

While a casual survey might indicate a general distrust and disdain for the idea of anarchy, it is important for an interpreter of Fassbinder’s work to recognize that his is a romantic anarchy: meaning, an anarchy that accepts and embraces its own untenability, while refusing to hide or ignore the basic appeal of its tenets. His condemnation of social constructs stemmed from a genuine, dialectical longing to embrace the multitudinous forms of civilization; all the while dismantling the most rigid ideological molds, and making room for better (if not always entirely new) ideas to take center stage. For instance, this essay would argue the central idea in The Marriage of Maria Braun to be a belief in the unsung possibilities for people to love fully and unabashedly, free of obligation or socio-culturally imposed restraints. (Fassbinder would return to this thesis again in Lola and Querelle, before rejecting it one last time in his funereal-yet-magisterial opus Veronika Voss).

Hanna Schygulla plays Maria Braun as a somewhat reserved small-town girl, who turns from a state of repression to a wild bout of hedonism, eventually settling for the upper-middle class formula of the new German economy; a formula in which hedonism become a commodity, and relationships dissolve into missed connections. And while we all only have ourselves to blame for some things in life, Fassbinder (& Märthesheimer) and Schygulla proclaim here that sometimes, society needs to reorient itself in the mirror of its own history: to scrutinize the systems of its own disintegration, without pointing fingers or placing easy blame; and then, to actively decide upon the course of its own future. Instead of turning to despair, they employ the tools of film comedy (wit; mischief; crisis)—refined through the shiny machinery of Hollywood movie magic—to show that it’s all just a laugh, seen in the colorful stage-light of the American melodrama. And conversely, the laugh is on us, as storytellers, when we fail to account for this interpretation and start taking ourselves too seriously—or thinking too rigidly.

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Left to right: Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), and Earn (Donald Glover) tap the more existential side of comedy in Atlanta. © 2018, FX Networks.

It would seem that now would be the ideal time for an existential comedy of this nature. Maybe this is why so many Americans gravitate towards the novelty act of “comedy news shows:” a longing to find the humor in their situation; to either lighten the load of current events, or de-mistify the real struggle(s) of social progress. And while some of these programs may be satisfactory from a purely anecdotal standpoint, they tend to lose their universality and impactfulness when they turn legitimate talking points into ideological wedges. Especially considering the unwanted (but entirely too real) threat of international cyberwarfare, we might well benefit from honing our models of universal communication and dialectical/critical thinking—rather than casting them aside in favor of jingoistic platitudes and passionate inaction. If for no other reason, because the humor that emerges from this climate of divisiveness is hardly ever humorous, nor does it serve the most noble purpose of comedy: that is, to bring people together in a shared understanding of their collective ridiculousness.

As far as this broader definition of existential comedy is concerned, this writer has been impressed by the cheeky work of writer/director Donald Glover in his original TV series, Atlanta (which manages, in its most brilliant and memorable episodes, to neatly extract the existential crisis at the core of its situational vignettes). The recently released Death of Stalin—an Armando Iannucci (In the Loop, Veep) theatrical film comedy about this very subject—alternates between moments of brilliant humor and morbid logic, though it occasionally seems overly aware of its own ominous timeliness. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird carries a distinct regional-and-therefore-universal flavor (as opposed to the more lamentable inverse), and Taika Waititi (What We Do In the Shadows) seems to be following in the humanist footsteps of Christopher Guest. By and large, however, American comedy appears to be adrift in a sea of ideological word-traps; monitored by cultural watchdogs who alternately attempt to foster a better society, or seek to contain that which they do not fully comprehend (and in many cases, a bit of both). Perhaps it is the existence of these very constraints that outlines the freedoms we find so appealing in comedy. Nonetheless, these constrictions have a way of asserting themselves possessively and repressively; dragging us back to primitive misunderstandings and oversimplifications, and enslaving us to a false notion of freedom that—while worded as a superficially different dogma within different social circles—is fundamentally redundant and divisive, and only serves to wreak havoc on our efforts to understand and to evolve.

Taken as a whole, it’s sort of hilarious.

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Betti and Maria swap truistic insights from the corner of a house party. © 1979, Westdeutscher Rundfunk.

In a particular memorable sequence, midway through The Marriage of Maria Braun, the protagonist finds herself one of only three passengers in the first class car of a train bound for Berlin. While trying to seduce the affections of a wealthy businessman (and in need of a source of income, with her husband recently imprisoned), Maria is approached by the third passenger—a rowdy and lewd G.I. under the influence (played by Fassbinder’s on-screen crush, Gunther Kaufmann), who appears convinced that Maria is a sex worker. The scene builds uncomfortably at first, as the dual themes of prostitution (selling one’s body to be part of a man’s business, vs. making one’s body a business) are brought into full relief, against our protagonist’s most noble intentions; but the tension breaks, as Schygulla pops off on the G.I. in filthy-but-grammatically coherent American slang—picked up from her previous affair with Bill. The viewer’s sympathies are then inspired to switch to the bright-eyed Kauffman, who looks somewhat intimidated and offended by Maria’s words—before confidently offering Frau Braun a military salute, addressing her as his superior.

The flip-flopping of power dynamics that permeates the middle section of Fassbinder’s masterpiece serves to define Maria’s trajectory in epic narrative terms. Only instead of it being a “great white man” at the center of a white man’s narrative, we find a woman in command of her own narrative; collaborating with a mix of creative individuals from different backgrounds and ideologies, and confident in her own POV—unafraid of getting lost in the shuffle. It’s the portrait of a woman inspired by the power of love, the quest for fulfillment, and the possibility of redemption in untold places. When one takes into account the remainder of the film’s character cast, one finds a range of different individuals, with different and entirely credible perspectives that conflict with or concede to one another (particularly endearing are Maria’s mother, played by Gisela Uhlen, and her girlfriend Betti, played by Elisabeth Trissenaar). They all demonstrate the capacity for a transcendent love, but only some manage to shatter the barriers of social oppression; and of those, only some manage to maintain their radical perspective (while others, like Maria, drift away on an ocean of creature comforts. Interpreted by certain critics upon its initial release, Maria was an allegory for post-Weimar Germany: “a character, that wears flashy and expensive clothes, but has lost her soul”).

Ultimately, Fassbinder and Schygulla seem to love all their characters in equal measure. They seem to be inviting us to love ourselves a little better: to demonstrate our self-love by actively confronting our surroundings, and dismantling the mechanisms of our own oppression (without substituting them for a different set of chains). They seem here to remind us that ideas are great, but ideologies are tiresome. That we can get more done by just spelling the problem out—ensuring we all share in a deeper understanding of the human condition—instead of operating from a private assumption of how things work and how we ought to fix them. They seem to be telling us that if we truly understand, we’ll be able to laugh about it; and if we can laugh about it, we might be able to really do something about it. Because when we’re allowed access to this universal laugh (a laughter that bravely confronts the darkness, rather than riding along with it), the darkness is no longer too frightening to bear. And once fear is removed from the equation, the soul can begin to breathe again.

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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.”

* * *

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.

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 as a central protagonist, the informed listener is bound to hear this song 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), Charlotte chooses to sing exclusively in French on this track; the chorus itself 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…

A deplorable year, in context.

petra

Margit Carstensen plays the embittered Petra Von Kant in Fassbinder’s 1972 film of his quasi-biographical play; pictured here during her final on-film meltdown in front of her family. © 1972, New Yorker Films.

It started with cocktails.

It was November 8th—Election night, 2016. My partner and I had dinner (nachos, I think) with a cocktail on the side, to try and wash away the bitter taste of the ugly year leading up to this occasion. We caught up on some pre-recorded programs in the DVR, and switched over to PBS for the occasional play-by-play of electoral returns. Of course, it was still “too early to tell” at this point; though the smugness of certain commentators—a less-than-subtle confidence in the already projected outcome (a Democratic “landslide”)—gave me pause.

In the months preceding this night, I endeavored to raise awareness of the complex and multi-faceted significance of this election—and the devastating ramifications if the Presidential seal were to go to the most corrupt, unqualified, and inexperienced candidate ever to campaign for this office (from foreign policy, to climate policy, to basic civil rights, to corporate privileges, to tax policy, to infrastructure, to cyber-security and net neutrality…) I had cautioned my Bernie-adoring friends that the so-called “lesser of two evils” was, after all, still “less evil.” I encouraged folks to consider the pragmatic perspective that many social workers (myself included) are forced to adopt on a day-to-day basis, as a consequence of living in an imperfect world with imperfect choices: while one can rarely take an action that will result in no harm whatsoever (with the notion of “no harm” being in direct opposition to the human experience), one can gather information and critically evaluate options in order to take the path of least harm.

As I sat in front of the television, sweaty glass of booze in hand, I saw the path opening in front of our nation: suffice it to say, it was not the path of least harm.

I would like to say that, in hindsight, I responded to this awareness with a proportionate level of disappointment. If I were to be perfectly sincere, I would admit that my disappointment and anxiety skyrocketed beyond any proportion I might’ve prepared myself for, and my subsequent display of emotion was probably on par with the most exhibitionist meltdown of a character in a Fassbinder film (think Petra Von Kant screaming at her family, drunk on the carpet; or Elvira recounting her history of trauma from inside a slaughterhouse). After fifteen minutes of incredulously gazing at the incredulity of the commentators on the TV screen, I wandered off to bed in a daze, and sobbed myself through a (seemingly endless) night without sleep.

Some time after, my partner wandered up and lay next to me—our dog Sam sprawled in between us: blissfully blind to the specifics of what was happening around him, but visibly aware that something was off. He rubbed his nose against my side and I scratched behind his ear, periodically reaching for my phone and checking the electoral map for signs of hope; none were forthcoming. At a certain point, I just stop checking—painfully aware of the heightened anxiety provoked by these micro-updates. And then, the indigestion started. And the routine visits to the toilet to try and purge the queasiness swirling around in my stomach. And the hours spent in near-delirium, staring at the ceiling and waiting for the night to end, while simultaneously dreading the thought of having to survive the night and emerge into the reality awaiting me on the other side.

I’m still lying awake when I hear the clicking of a computer—my partner having woken up before me (as per usual), now checking the news feed on his desktop. I counted the seconds between the first few mouse clicks, and the first audible, heaving sobs; I think it took about fifteen seconds. I turned my face into a pillow and cried.

* * *

I find myself reliving this fateful day, as I embark on this effort to put my experience of 2017 in some sort of context (call it self-therapy). I can’t help but feel that the answer to many questions that have arisen out of this disastrous, unsettling, and disorienting year, lies somewhere in the outcome of that night—and the collective reaction to an action taken by the smallest margin of our population ever to select a (proposed) “leader of the free world.” In the months immediately following the election, I was one of many to identify a heightened level of engagement with social media; and while I cannot attest to the motives of others, I will readily concede that my personal engagement was driven by a heightened awareness of the unprecedented impact social media had yielded throughout the course of the election. In reading the near-unbelievable, beyond-dystopian tale of Cambridge Analytica, and the well-documented strategies implemented by several shady figures in favor of a global right-wing coup, it became quite evident to me that we stood on the threshold of a deeper abyss than was projected by the most dour catastrophist during the election itself. I felt a compulsion to be more outspoken than I had been before (since, evidently, reserved compunction, blind faith in objectivity, and trust in the collective conscience of mankind had not yielded any favorable results). Looking back over some of the insights and commentary I shared publicly via social media at the start of the year, I regret none of what I wrote—but I can now recognize the general insignificance of my commentary with a greater degree of intellectual clarity.

This isn’t to say I’ve adopted a defeatist perspective. Today, I can sincerely claim (give or take a little) the same level of investment in the plight of humankind as I claimed last November; and the year before that, and so forth. But as our global village (if McLuhan’s term can even be fairly applied to our present-day climate) advances towards ever-increasing levels of chaos, I’ve become painfully aware of how incompetent and, in many cases, outright detrimental this twenty-first century drive to provide running commentary on the human experience has been to achieving any sort of actual progress. Retrospectively, in fact, one can trace the most recent phase of devolution (and devaluation) of the human species through a comprehensive anthology of our president’s impetuous Tweets—accompanied by the often-comparably impetuous retorts of commentators across the globe. If one were inclined to place these exchanges in context and illuminate the bigger picture for those in need of perspective, one could print this anthology of Tweets and comments and hang it on a wall in a museum; opposite this display, one could hang a display of climate data, pictures of the refugee crisis, profiles of newly-appointed right-wing judiciary representatives, annual hate crime statistics, research on hereditary traumaworld poverty statistics, annual gun violence statistics, opioid overdose statistics, and current nuclear arsenal statistics (with illustrations). The viewer of such an exhibit should be capable of drawing their own conclusions.

Suffice it to say, very little social progress has been achieved during the past year. One could go so far as to argue that we have taken such an enormous step back in our social evolution—the trajectory of social progress has been scrambled to such an extent that we have to redefine the very idea of social progress. For example: prior to the election, one could generally accept that, regardless of one’s economic status or party affiliation, sexual assault was a deplorable action. But something changed, somewhere along the course of the 2016 campaign trail. If one were to examine the Republican party’s response to the excavation of that infamous Access Hollywood tape, and compare it to their response to revelations that then-President-elect Bill Clinton’s had engaged in an extended affair, years before the 1992 election, one would have to resolve that the Right has either lowered their standards for outrage, or only complain when their majority is on the line. In addition to this, we find the emergence of a new Right-wing chorus (which will go on to be adopted by many a libertarian, third-party voters, and Democrats as well): the now familiar refrain of “fake news;” a magic potion for alleviating the symptoms of cognitive dissonance.

gennifer

During the historic 1992 campaign trail, it didn’t take long for the revelation of President-elect Bill Clinton’s 12-year affair with Gennifer Flowers to become a partisan weapon yielded by the Bush campaign to cast moral aspersions on his Democratic opponent.

In 1992, voters of all stripes wrestled with both the knowledge of Clinton’s affairs and an awareness that this information might be manipulated for partisan gain; in 2016, there appeared to be little-to-no wrestling at all. Polls at the time indicated that, by and large, 45’s base was actually strengthened by the revelation of the tape: casting the objective information of the tape aside, many of 45’s supporters voiced an opinion that their only concern lay with how this information might be skewed for partisan gain—and not with the implications of the information itself. In other words, the information of our then-President-elect’s predatory behavior (in combination with all the other evidence accrued to support the case for his predatory business practices) was as good as irrelevant. And so began the trend of alternative facts, and the convenience of being able to reject information that conflicts with one’s pre-existing belief pattern by merely denying its existence. Viewed along the action-reaction continuum, “fake news” was both a reaction to the leftist obsession with investigative journalism, and a positive action in its own terms (using “positive” in the Skinnerian sense). For by achieving an unspoken consensus among themselves—that information adverse to the advancement of one’s own political goals cannot (and should not) be bothered with in the first place—45’s supporters have succeeded in establishing a level of intellectual disengagement not seen at any other point during the nation’s past century of political discourse.

If we now consider this new right-wing action (“just say “fake news” whenever anything upsets you”), we must consider the subsequent leftist reaction (hyper-dramatically present the severity of upsetting developments, in an attempt to appeal to the emotional-spiritual side of right-wing fact-deniers). The leftist reaction can be seen throughout any number of impassioned Facebook and Twitter rants: that (somewhat-to-absolute) self-righteous outpouring of hysteria and concern, presented with all the pathos and drama of an argument in some generic TV courtroom drama. This brand of emotional reactivity has been, in some cases, strategically channeled to advance social issues (as in, most recently, Tarana Burke’s powerful #MeToo movement); on the flip side, the catharsis of social media engagement presents a stumbling block for individuals who have no conception of follow-through. For instance, the fanaticism of Howard Beale (Peter Finch) in Paddy Chayefsky’s Network (1976), which I see frequently shared (in the form of the “I’m as mad as hell” excerpt) by peers and acquaintances on social media, offers a prescient insight into the risks associated with commercializing outrage—though I fear some folks take the bit out of context and fail to apprehend the way it all falls apart.

In Sidney Lumet’s film of Chayefsky’s acclaimed script, Peter Finch convincingly plays a neurotic newsman who “flips a wig” after being let go from his job, and takes to the air to advertise his on-air suicide a night in advance. Instead of delivering on his promise, he launches into a sermon about how the world is going to shit, then beckons his viewers to run to their windows and yell into the streets with him: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” His viewers comply, and the station executives hear of a boost in ratings: they investigate the situation further, and realize there’s big money to be made selling outrage to the deadened masses. In a relatively short period of time, the mentally unstable Howard Beale has been asked to front his own television variety show—to feature his now-trademark impassioned rant as a sort of nightly act. Beale displays some resistance early in production, but by the end of the movie has been brainwashed to the point of putty in the station’s hands: a once genuine expression of repressed jouissance has become a weird sort of household name, and the television executives profiting from his mental health condition wind up having him killed, because of an eventual decline in ratings.

network

In Network, Peter Finch plays a hysterical newsman (named Howard Beale) whose psychosis is co-opted by his employers at the network for a spike in ratings. Once the act grows old and ratings decline, Beale is bumped off by his executives, who will continue accruing royalties from his downfall. © 1976, MGM Pictures.

While extreme and grotesque in its scope, and rendered for largely satirical purposes, Chayefsky’s work does seem to offer a cautionary tale for our time. In order to prevent becoming as pathologically shortsighted as Howard Beale, one must always ask oneself, when contemplating such catharsis: What purpose could this possibly serve? What’s the intended follow-up plan for one’s outrage—or is there one? Is it possible that one is just yelling words into a digitized vacuum, which then captures one’s words and capitalizes upon them, selling them off as part of a metadata package? Is this essay going to become just one more yell into the vacuum? One hopes not, but one never knows.

Since human beings have still failed to learn the lesson the universe endeavored so painfully to instill in us throughout last year’s election (the lesson: social media activity will not fix most things, or even anything; but it can readily make things worse if given the opportunity), we’ve apparently doubled down, and now find ourselves caught in the middle of a surreal and bizarre game of “who has the most sexual predators in their camp?” (As far as what this game is intended to prove or resolve, I suppose anyone’s guess is as adequate as the next person’s.) One by one—day by day—famous celebrities and political pundits continue to drop like flies in the ointment of this “to catch a predator” show; inappropriately enough, this surreal game has been (and continues being) overseen by the predator who set this chain in motion last Fall (don’t worry: he’s not going anywhere anytime soon).

In keeping with the chosen leftist reaction to overstate one’s passion for a given issue—in a vain effort to “wake the deadbeats from their slumber”—we now find the exponential possibility of human folly achieving the highest (or lowest?) levels of stupidity. For starters, we have the borderline-comical leftist insistence on the morally “wrong” connotation of sexual assault: as if by insisting strongly enough, those who believe otherwise might instantaneously be converted. Furthermore, this juvenile proclivity for moral sermonizing has embedded itself as a point of division between proponents of liberal policy. Just as the more die-hard idealists who upheld the “purity” of Bernie Sanders against the “corruption” of Hillary Clinton drove a wedge between the otherwise-united front of liberal voters (aided and abetted by the Russian trolls who targeted third-party and Bernie supporters with strategically placed news stories to reinforce their disdain for Hillary), we now have liberal idealists thinning their own herd (yet again) by singling out anyone who fails to fall in line with the outspoken chants leveled against perpetrators of sexual assault.

I recently stumbled upon an article which provides a textbook illustration of the infantile thought process underlying this leftist penchant for “out-idealist-ing” one another. In an online Stereogum/Spin magazine article (filed under the “News” heading), a writer named Peter Helman takes issue with comments and views put forth by the ever-divisive Steven Morrissey in a recent Der Spiegel interview (yet again, I find myself stumbling upon the commentary before the news itself; which, in and of itself, isn’t news). Here’s a verbatim transcript of the opening paragraph, as printed in the article (whose writer acknowledges openly that he did not bother to pursue a proper translation of the interview, and relied upon Google translator as arbiter of the interviewee’s meaning):

“Hey look, Morrissey said a stupid thing! It’s been a while since Moz has said something truly objectionable and not just, like, ‘Oh, Morrissey is kind of an asshole.’ But now, in an interview with the German news outlet Spiegel Online on the heels of his new solo album Low In High School, he’s come through with some genuinely terrible opinions.”

First, we find the distinctly liberal cocktail of snark and finger-wagging writ large in the opening statement: before we are even offered a glimpse at the musician’s controversial comments (let alone the chance to remind oneself, as hopefully all reasonable and grown adults do in such instances: “what do I care what some music journalist thinks of what some musician thinks of some matter with which he has no direct affiliation?”), we are instructed (seeing as how the reader cannot possibly be intelligent enough to reach their own conclusion) that the comments are objectively “stupid.” Then, we have the reinforcement of this admonishment coupled with an insistence that one ought to consider these “stupid” statements even more offensive than whatever the last thing the writer had admonished the musician about. Then, as if the message had not yet been clearly conveyed (after all, we’re dealing with a reading audience that cannot be trusted with their own thoughts), the writer insists that this latest interview with the Moz reveals “some genuinely terrible opinions.” (Be still, my fluttering outrage odometer!)

I’m disinclined to even bother with an analysis of the article (let alone the comparably over-indignant commentary of those who shared the “story” on social media; excepting for maybe Shirley Manson, who brought up a valid point in suggesting that Morrissey appeared to not have the latest updates on the “plot[s]” of Spacey and Weinstein), but I nevertheless feel compelled to provide some sort of a corrective to the borderline-toxic preachiness of these self-appointed messiahs to moral indignation. Not that Morrissey’s views, as quoted here, are even that noteworthy or idiosyncratic: if anything, they seem to echo the contrarian tone of similarly uneventful remarks delivered by Johnny Rotten earlier this year. But whereas Rotten and Morrissey are merely doing what they’ve been doing all along in their respective careers (namely, being abrasively provocative), Helman’s heavy-handed critique—along with any analysis bearing the imprint of such thoughtless indignation—inflicts the greatest damage of all on the integrity of an intelligent dialogue: for not only does it inherently reject the reader’s intelligence (something that neither Rotten nor the Moz, bluster aside, would ever dare try), it functions primarily as the byproduct of a profit-driven online press: a press which now feeds vampirically on the outrage of the web-surfing public, frequently leaning on the crutch of self-righteous indignation as a shortcut to increase clicks and shares. (Hm… that sounds familiar.)

And since “writers” (at least, the successful ones; the ones whose bread-and-butter is outrage-tinted click-bait) save the most upsetting/eyebrow-raising/scintillating bits for last (in order to maximize the advertisement space between the reader’s first click on the article and the long scroll to its disappointing finish), there must be some build-up to the exhibit of [insert celebrity’s name]’s horrifying remarks. Like an 18th century freak show, in which true horror would have to be instilled in the imagination of the visitor, before being deflated by the banality of the exhibit itself. (Sure enough, cries of “shame!” and “how dare he?” were heaped upon the Moz within minutes of the article’s posting; after all, what’s one more pariah on the fire…) In keeping with every other un-news-worthy observation shared by Morrissey in an interview, a scandalous viewpoint has been tried and condemned for failing to align with the prevalent vernacular and perspective of the times, and persona non grata status has been duly granted to the offending party. From what we know about the artist in question, one ought to suspect this is what he wanted all along, anyway: win-win (I guess?)

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Steven Morrissey’s 30+ year career has been consistently marked by stylized, overly dramatic outbursts, coupled with the artist’s vegan activism and often reactionary views. As a (by)product of the British punk era, Morrissey is to many a poster-boy for resisting conformity. Also  renowned as a legendary pain in the arse.

My point here isn’t that Morrissey’s statements should be defended: he’s a grown man and should take ownership of whatever non-sense and/or half-sense pours out of his twisted mouth. Rather, my point is to ask: What purpose could this possibly serve? And moreover: What does all this exhibitionistic “journalism” imply about the state of social commentary? Have we truly devolved to the point that an individual needs to preface any commentary on the subject of sexual abuse (and the inherently complex psychology of victims and perpetrators) with an assertion that one does, in fact, disapprove of sexual abuse and predatory behavior? Are there popular articles out there that I’m not seeing, in which individuals go on record saying that they condone sexual abuse, and wish there was more of it? And if so, is the tone of such deplorable articles so unrecognizable from the tone of a level-headed writer’s, that level-headed writers need fear their audience suspecting they might, in fact, be pro-sexual abuse? And if so, wouldn’t the abuser-shamers serve their purported mission more capably by tracking down those pro-abuse folks and chastising them? Regardless of the answers to any of these questions, nothing remotely edifying can come of such conversations, if we cannot bring ourselves to respect (read: allow) the judgment and intellect of our reading audience—sans these forceful and belittling cues to trigger our moral outrage.

Which brings me back to the actual problem at-hand, and the elephant in the room that remains perpetually sheltered from the storm of allegations swirling around him: the President of the United States. For unlike Morrissey (or Johnny Rotten), our president has made it clear time and again that he is pro-sexual abuse, and despite the skepticism of his supporters (who feared that their boy’s well-documented predatory behavior might be yielded by leftist commentators for partisan gain), he has displayed no compunction about turning allegations of abuse into political weapons—so long, of course, as the allegations are directed at individuals outside the Republican umbrella. Which renders it all the messier when individuals on the left allow themselves to get caught up in the hurricane of abuser-shaming (often with noble intentions, at least at the start), since this is exactly what the most powerful person in the country has been relying upon this entire year to advance a truly abusive agenda—not least of all, through his success in appointing an entire slate of unnerving judicial assignments: out-of-touch bigots and bloggers; unqualified lunatics who will shape our country’s legislation for decades following the inevitable demise of this administration. All the while, his White House continues to ignore and deny the allegations of 16 women who have confronted the public with their abuse stories, and the President remains… the President. As of this writing, there have been no formal inquests proposed in Congress to investigate and pursue these claims further.

I suppose I should feel compelled here to state my own disavowal of sexual abuse, and to verbalize my support for the victims who have come forth with their alternately harrowing and unnerving stories. I’ve chosen to refrain from offering any commentary on the subject up until this writing for a combination of reasons; mainly, as someone (and more specifically, as a white man) who has not suffered sexual abuse firsthand, I feel it isn’t really my place to remark on a subject so close to others, yet so distant from my own lived experience. I’ve found that, in such cases, it’s best to just shut up and listen to those who know what they’re talking about.

* * *

The title of this essay is taken from a track on this year’s Sun Kil Moon/Jesu collaboration, 30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth. The song takes as its subject the child abuse scandals that haunted Michael Jackson to his early grave: it appears to have been inspired by a conversation on a plane between the song’s writer (Mark Kozelek) and a young woman traveling to Greece to perform in a musical of Michael Jackson’s life. The song paraphrases a conversation between the two, in which Kozelek asserts (rather firmly) that the world is, undoubtedly, a better place without a pedophile R’n’B star living in it. At first listen, the lyrics to the song are more-than-slightly jarring: casual listeners might be inclined to interpret this perspective to be the actual opinion of songwriter Mark Kozelek, whereas those who’ve spent time with Kozelek’s other recordings may recognize the sound of his (often) darkly satirical social commentary.


I can’t say for certain whether the lyrics to “He’s Bad” come from a place of sincere commentary or social satire, but I find it difficult to accept the former interpretation. In fact, the perspective of the song’s narrator is often so wince-inducing in its generalizations, one can only make sense of it when read in quotation marks:

“Is the latest on him true?
Well I don’t fuckin’ know
But if I had a son, would I let him get into a car with Michael Jackson?
Fuck no
I’m sorry for the bad things that his father did to him
But it doesn’t add up to building a Willie Wonka trap for kids
And changin’ the color of your God given skin
He made creepy videos that the popular kids liked back in the eighties
And once over a balcony he dangled a baby
And did the moon walk
And talked like a 9 year old girl
I don’t give a flying fuck what he meant to the mainstream world
Roman Polanski went down in flames and was incarcerated
But this young little kid addict will forever be celebrated
A hundred plastic surgeries and paid two hundred million to shut people up
Took someone’s child like it was nobody’s business and dragged him around on a tour bus

He’s bad
And he’s dead and I’m glad
He’s bad
And he’s dead and I’m glad
He’s bad
And he’s dead and I’m glad
He’s dead and to me it ain’t that fuckin’ sad”

The song has stuck with me all throughout the ups and downs 2017 (and it was, for the most part, a year of downs). A friend of mine, who suggested I check out the record, cautioned me in advance about the song’s “cringe-worthy” quality; at first listen, I shared in his assessment. But upon further listens, a space opened up in the longer instrumental stretches of the track, and I found myself strangely drawn to it. Presently, I find it to be a brilliant piece of songwriting—perhaps even moreso, if these are, in fact, Kozelek’s verbatim opinions. The song capably highlights a common trend of generalization and oversimplification among present-day liberal pundits: one might as well call it the “make sure the baby goes out with the bathwater” syndrome. Because it’s easy (and more precisely, facile) to take a step back from the strange and unsettling case of Michael Jackson, and surmise that he was nothing more than a sick man who preyed on children—that consequently, the world is better off with him dead than alive, and he might as well have gone sooner. But had he never lived, this song (a highlight from the record, I think) would not exist: not just its lyrics, but its arrangement, structure, arpeggiation… all of which pay tribute to the late “King of Pop.” Which begs the question: Is it right for one human to judge the life of another and determine they ought not to exist—or have existed at all? It’s the same question that underlies the debate(s) surrounding the death penalty; war; abortion. Taken at face value, the perspective of Kozelek’s song sides with the affirmative answer to this question. But interpreted satirically, the question remains open-ended. Unlike the above-mentioned Stereogum article, the reader of Kozelek’s song is actually given a space to think for themselves and reach their own conclusions; so that, even if these are the songwriter’s dyed-in-the-wool beliefs, we don’t feel pressured into adopting them as our own (or, conversely, into rejecting them outright).

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Michael Jackson was the subject of great public scrutiny throughout his short and strange life, which provides the subject for the recent Sun Kil Moon / Jesu track, “He’s Bad” (from 30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth, available from Caldo Verde records).

I refuse here to entertain the idiotic question that somehow goes on being debated in certain circles: can bad people make good art? (I will, however, quickly dissect the idiocy inherent to the question’s phrasing: firstly, there is no such thing as “good” people or “bad people;” and second, what do you think?) However, I do find it noteworthy that a lot of angst appears forthcoming in the public response to revelations that Louis CK, Charlie Rose, and Kevin Spacey—celebrities that, unlike the blowhards who preceded them (Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and Harvey Weinstein) were somewhat well-liked—have lived messy lives and done some deplorable things. Each time a new pariah gets added to the fire (all the while, the President shakes hands with Duterte on a visit to the Philippines, and swaths of Puerto Rico remain powerless), I’m reminded of the excellent documentary Happy Valley, directed by Amir Bar-Lev and released in 2014—a year or two following the explosive child abuse scandals involving the once-respected Penn State coaches, Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky. In his film, Bar-Lev explores the American (and outright human) proclivity for placing a fallible person on a pedestal, and then shaking one’s head in disbelief when fallibility rears its ugly head. As I watched the reactions pour in on social media (friends who initially felt inclined to defend their heroes against the allegations, and as soon as proof was provided, reluctantly gave in to the evidence, tossing the baby out the window), I had a flashback to the confused street riots that followed the Sandusky trial—in which the townsfolk of Happy Valley alternately mourn and celebrate the dismantling of a statue once proudly erected to Joe Paterno (who was not convicted of perpetrating, but was found to have enabled Sandusky’s behavior after being informed of its existence).

The psychology of the townsfolk, which is smartly and respectfully explored by Bar-Lev in his documentary, can easily be transposed to the public psychology surrounding this irrational debate unfolding on our national stage; the key question in the debate is: Where do we store our dismantled idols? (As opposed to the far more proactive question, which everyone seems too afraid to pose: Why are we obsessed with erecting idols in the first place?) For some (and most specifically, for those employed in talk news) the answer to this question is “straight to hell.” Never in my adult life have I seen such a rabid drive—propelled primarily by pundits who appear to take more than a little schadenfreude in exposing the discovery of (yet another) sexual predator—to excommunicate individuals from their professions (before their employers have even had a chance to evaluate each situation and weigh in on the matter; a scary social precedent, to be sure), and hold their mock-trial in the court of social media (for an especially disturbing case-in-point, see the response of so-called “progressives” to the revelation—forecast eerily by a Roger Stone tweet—that Al Franken did some things in poor taste on his USO tours).

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A resident of Happy Valley, featured in Amir Bar-Lev’s 2014 film of the same name, takes a stand by the statue erected to honor Joe Paterno’s heroic status among the community. His sign reads: “Paterno, the coverup artist !! Paterno, the liar !! Paterno, the pedophile enabler !!” © 2014, Music Box Films.

On the one hand, this sort of “cleaning house” could be argued as a corrective to the long-delayed response of Fox News executives to the litany of allegations leveled against Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly (et al); on the other, the zealousness of this drive appears to be conspicuously overlooking the most powerful perpetrator in the room. And if we are not making an effort to prioritize the perpetrators who wield (and exploit) the largest amount of power, but gladly chase after those with relatively little power (yielding the digital equivalent of pitchforks and torches), then the only takeaway from this discussion is that humans are increasingly oblivious to their own addiction to the mechanisms of an exploitative society—to the extent that we routinely take private pleasure in exploiting other exploiters, all the while denying our own role in the circle of exploitation.

At the end of the day, it is this recognition of the multi-faceted power deferential involved, which appears to be the biggest stumbling block for most folks to navigate. Setting aside the heavy-handedness and gross over-simplification of Morrissey’s “controversial” remarks, he does appear to be clumsily pointing to a taboo truth that some people refuse to acknowledge: that in some (not all) instances, the prospective “victim” in the abuser-abused equation will find a way to subvert the power deferential for their own gain. And before the reader reaches for their pitchfork, allow me to clarify that I am speaking of these matters in the specific context of exploitative behavior within an exploitative society (one cannot ignore the reality that individuals make desperate decisions under desperate circumstances). One thinks of the psychologically-sound Lolita twist, for instance—in which an older man preys on a “nymphet,” only to find her turning the tables and exploiting his inappropriate adulation to achieve independence. Which isn’t to say that Nabokov lets Humbert Humbert—or his predatory leanings—off the hook; rather, he accepts the obvious element(s) in this equation, before pointing to the more taboo reality lived by more than just a few individuals in this power-driven society: a reality in which the exploited learns how to exploit, for lack of other identifiable options. (In her best-selling memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, author Azar Nafisi provides a feminist interpretation of Nabokov’s text—which she read as a metaphor for the often oppressive experience of life in the Islamic Republic of Iran; further highlighting the on-going significance of discovering fresh social commentary in old texts.)

Alas, such nuanced observations can never see the light of day in our current debate surrounding sexual abuse (or any other issue, for that matter), seeing as how the very idea of truth has already been co-opted and distorted by opportunistic sycophants and sociopaths at Fox News (and elsewhere)—who continue making a killing, selling dumbed-down distortions and good old-fashioned lies as substitutes for insightful commentary. And on the other side of the political fence, a vehement denial of nuance in sex politics frequently appears as a thin disguise for some vaguely misogynistic impulse to deny the emotional, behavioral, and psychological complexity of the feminine experience (for it’s easier to brand every woman a victim for life, even after they’ve made peace with their offenders and politely invited their defenders to piss off). Rather than confront the messy psychology and uncomfortable truths inherent to the dynamic between victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse, talk news pundits (few of whom can be considered experts in social psychology) have apparently reached a consensus that the best way to talk about the issue is to: not actually talk about it; shame the perpetrators until they’re out of a job; and run the interviews of the victims being forced to describe (in gritty detail) their abuse to the flashing lights and rolling cameras; over, and over, and over again… Similar to the way most pundits talk about gun violence (except, no one has actually lost their job for enabling mass gun violence through aggressive gun lobbying; not that I’m aware of, at least).

And again.
What purpose could this possibly serve?

What strikes me the most about Kozelek’s song (which inspired, at least in part, this meandering diatribe) is how it either intentionally or, perhaps unintentionally highlights the banality of its own perspective. Every time I hear the song, I think to myself “I would never go out of my way to listen to a song that presents such a perspective with utmost sincerity:” it would be like taking Randy Newman’s “Rednecks” at face value. A song that feels so stiltedly obliged to assert moral autonomy, while somewhat sadistically proposing a recommendation of death to criminal offenders…  What purpose could this possibly serve? One hopes, the purpose of irony. For in making the listener consider words and deeds of such strict moral outrage—in confronting us with our own respective failures to accept some amount of gray in our black and white lives—one might then feel a little wiser, considering the possibility of something else. Not unlike in the films of Fassbinder, who strove time and again to show the audience the need for change, while never spelling out what that change ought to be (after all, shouldn’t we be smart enough to figure it out on our own?)

In an essay from a book I’ve had my nose in lately, detailing the merits of RWF’s 1971 film masterpiece The Merchant of Four Seasons, author and former acquaintance Christian Braad Thomsen observes:

“Fassbinder […] shows the necessity of vigorous action on the part of the viewer. But he’s not a school teacher, who wants to raise his finger and tell the audience what they have to do, if they want to change the world. He is the Socratic artist, who uncovers how the existing possibilities of living have failed, and points out that change is necessary.”

Throughout his prolific and multi-faceted career, Fassbinder sought to demonstrate the mechanisms of his inherently flawed and power-driven society, clearly enough for any viewer—regardless of their education, intelligence, or station in life—to understand the mechanism and, in turn, recognize the need to rise above it. Three years after releasing The Merchant of Four Seasons, Fassbinder carried his vision of societal deconstruction to an even more poetic and empowered level with Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. In an interview given after the film’s release, Fassbinder observed that “I tend to think that if […] depressing circumstances are only reproduced in film, it simply strengthens them. Consequently, the dominant conditions should be presented with such transparency that one understands they can be overcome.” Rather than taking a sadistic pleasure in portraying the misery of those too enslaved by a social mechanism to recognize how breakable their chains might be, Fassbinder sought to show love for these strange creatures called “humans,” by perpetually revealing the existence of the chains—and the absence of a wizard behind the curtain. In film after film and play after play (and without any undue condescension or simplification), he succeeded in demonstrating that all individuals (regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, or politics) are capable of breaking the chains of exploitation, if they only choose to live a pure existence—predicated upon the inherent human values that society continually distorts (by claiming them as its own, and often assigning them a capital/nominal value).

Put plainly: one cannot go on playing un-elected judge to man’s folly, and resigning oneself to a vacant culture of reactionary outrage. That would entail rejecting the possibility of finding a different way to live, and to demonstrate, by example, an alternative to such folly. (And if one rejects the need for an alternative to folly, one is simply a fool.)

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In his five-part TV mini-series, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, Rainer Werner Fassbinder paints one of his most positive portrayals of people trapped inside a social mechanism they yearn to break free from. © 1972-1973, Westdeutscher Rundfunk. Renewed 2017, Arrow Home Video.

I’ve returned to Fassbinder many times over the past years, and have always left with an uncanny sense of premonitory relevancy and an inspired momentum. A DVD set of the recently rediscovered (and beautifully restored) TV miniseries, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, has been a close companion these past few months; I’ve rarely seen a film so genuinely positive in its outlook, let alone a film of his. His characters are shown (as usual) to be moving parts in a social machine, but all the parts in this machine move beautifully—and each on their own terms. Instead of falling back on jargon, party slogans, or naïve Marxist sentiment, Fassbinder shows characters from all throughout the power structure as somehow genuine and, just as importantly, capable of empathy (and change). He shows that action will forever speak louder than the most eloquent words—while simultaneously revealing how words and images can be employed to further the awareness of a need for action. Not just social (read: collective) action, but individual action. Presently, fleeting social movements (via trends, hashtags, and viral videos) demand wide-spread attention, and the individual finds himself trapped between a biological drive to engage with one’s own self-actualization, and the socially conditioned response to ignore or reject this drive: to follow the horde or disappear. Hence, the “individual” is celebrated, but only on the terms of the individual’s bond with society; if the individual does anything to sever this bond with society, the individual essentially (and in certain cases, actually) will cease to exist.

Indeed, it would seem as though excommunication has been the only fear to consistently unify individuals, in societies across the world—and throughout the ages. The higher the threat of expulsion, the greater the anxiety in one’s life; the greater the anxiety in one’s life, the greater the relish in the expulsion of another. (Following this train of thought, one shudders to think of all the threats and anxieties our current President must have accrued in his lifetime.) I find it especially concerning that so many straight, white, and self-proclaimed “feminist” men appear to be foaming at the mouth to call out anyone who fails to speak the programmatic lingo they’ve conditioned themselves to communicate with; one wonders if some (or perhaps many) of these individuals might be protesting so loudly, for fear of having their own past improprieties exposed. Either way, I imagine a casual time traveler would have a hard time distinguishing our media’s contemporary treatment of sexual abuse scandals, from the Warren Commission’s treatment of the “Red Scare:” so many people eager to see the lives of others demolished, for fear of being next in line…

In another section of Thomsen’s illuminating text (entitled Fassbinder: The Life and Work of a Provocative Genius; quotes taken from the English text, translated by Martin Chalmers), analyzing Fassbinder’s explosively controversial (and for just reasons) play, Garbage, the City, and Death, the author reveals a parallel theme to the circle of exploitation: the corresponding closed circle of oppression—escape from which is a far more complicated matter. Thomsen writes that:

“Throughout Fassbinder’s work we see the oppressed assuming the norms of the oppressors, whether out of a conscious need for revenge or whether they have more or less unconsciously internalized the dominant norms. Fassbinder never has ‘pure’ heroes. Rather, he demonstrates one of the most melancholy consequences of oppression, that the damage to the souls of the victims makes them unable to find alternative norms, so that the only possibility left to them is to recapitulate the norms that have led to their oppression.”

While it sometimes feels as though Fassbinder has artistically resigned himself to a closed box of self-fulfilling prophecies, his work continually reminds the reader/viewer of the complexity of human behavior; a phenomenon which, after decades of misrepresentation (or reductive representation), we appear to have grown somewhat culturally blind to. (So we keep building new idols, only to tear them down after human behavior—yet again—reveals its darker potential.)

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In his 1981 feature film of Lili Marleen (pictured above: a resplendent Hanna Schygulla, in the titular role), Fassbinder reveals the cyclical nature of exploitation and oppression through the story of a Weimar cabaret singer in love with a Jewish man, at the start of World War II. As its despairing plot progresses against the oppressive backdrop of the Nazi regime, all of the protagonists catch themselves in the act of being exploited and exploiting others, to survive and to pursue the faint possibility of self-actualization in desperate times.

As I continue to revisit Kozelek’s song—from one month to the next, and one criminal celebrity exposé to another—I’ve decided that I don’t ever want to catch myself reveling in the demise of another human being. Those words, “He’s bad/He’s dead/and I’m glad,” ring hauntingly hollow; they don’t feel genuine… As a stand-alone thought, without corrective, they feel like a disservice to the vastly complex potential of our human nature. And yet, one is so very often stumped, when confronted with the death of someone who did truly terrible things.

This morning, the headlines read: “Charles Manson Dead at 83.” Later in the day, upon arriving at my office, I was made aware of a death in the immediate family of one of my co-workers. I felt (and still feel) a profound sadness for my friends and their family. I thought of Leslie Van Houten momentarily, and the families of his victims, but apart from that I could muster little in the way of an emotional response to Manson’s death. The words of Kozelek’s song ran through my head again, and they rang false again; seeing as how gladness was an emotion, and I couldn’t bring myself to fit emotion in the equation of Manson’s death. A custodian at the office made small talk with me about the news while changing trash liners, observing that: “Someone who did so many awful murders… If I’d had my way, he would’ve been taken out back and put down. Saved the tax payers some money.” I acknowledged his observation, and respected his right to view the situation in such plain terms; I clarified that the death penalty was (rather controversially) suspended in California around the time of Manson’s sentencing. After our brief exchange, and upon considering Kozelek’s song and the deaths of other infamous criminals (and criminal artists) throughout history, I decided to follow my gut. After all, he was somebody’s child, and somebody loved him. Gladness seems glib, even in the plainest of contexts.

* * *

Where does all this leave us?
And what are we to do with the pieces we have left?

In answer to the first question: we are left alive and awake in the United States of America. We have a Constitution that has up until now guaranteed a fairly open space for independent speech and individual commentary. We have great books written by great minds; illuminating films by directors who see (or at least saw) the potential for the medium to show the possibility of an alternative, and the accompanying need for change. Beautiful records by our favorite musicians; museums and galleries full of artwork to expand our horizons (unlike the talk shows, reality shows, and click-driven online journals that rely upon the shrinking horizons of their viewership, in order to sustain their traffic and ratings). Blank paper, canvas, web outlets (free while they last), on which we can project our visions of an alternative and our private and collective need to change.

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Anna Karina in Jean-Luc Godard’s dystopian masterpiece, Alphaville: channeling Alfred Hitchcock; channeled later by Ridley Scott. © 1965, Athos Films.

As for what we’re supposed to do with all this… well, that’s up to us: individually and collectively. I’m in no position to outline the course for an entire nation of people—each with their own individual views, ideas, convictions, and motives—but I do think we would be better off trying to learn something from the trials and tribulations we’re living through, rather than just repeating these tired tropes of scapegoating, public shaming, and language-policing (among other forms of dictatorial social conduct). As was sorely predicted by many of us, when the results of last year’s election rolled in, this year has been a nightmare on many fronts; and short of an organized revolt or an awakening of Republican consciousness, we’ll have to endure at least one more year of the nightmare. By continuing on the course our society has traversed this past year (a course that has both recycled traditional socio-economic exploitation tropes and invented new ones, thanks to the willingness of millions to surrender their thoughts, ideas, photos, and identities to metadata collectors—free of charge—to be exploited by the highest online bidder), we are sentencing ourselves to an increasingly dystopian future in which individual thought verges on extinction, civil liberties become novelties, sex is reduced to a formal contract, and humor is no longer recognized. Like Godard’s Alphaville, only far less cool to look at.

As far as my own experience of 2017 is concerned, I like to believe that I’m leaving this year older and more tired, but wiser as well; less quick to jump to conclusions, more open to the ambiguity of life and the possibilities for change. I advance into the wilderness of a new year with the knowledge that no socially-imposed chain of exploitation can hijack my freedom to think and act in accordance with a greater wisdom. Unless, of course, I grant this chain the power to do so.

“Even Richard Nixon has got soul.”
– Neil Young
(from the 1977 song, “Campaigner,” recently reissued on his Hitchhiker LP)

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.

Vice Principals is the show that every American adult—and more specifically, every racially disoriented white American—should probably be watching and talking about over dinner. As it becomes increasingly difficult to satirize reality (with reality itself having become an un-ironic satire of social indecency), the creators of this half-hour HBO comedy series (Jody Hill and Danny McBride) have somehow managed to pointedly encapsulate everything bad that is afflicting our country’s societal wellness—while at the same time saving a space for the remaining dregs of decency, which are routinely squeezed out of similar attempts at encapsulating our problems in dramatic form. It’s a program defined by its crass, cruel, grotesquely arch, and (often unexpectedly) black comedy. But while the ostensible victim of the show’s first season was a black woman climbing the ladder of upper management in a public school system, it is the show’s prime villain (her cold-blooded VP, Lee Russell) who undergoes the greatest scrutiny and, ultimately, comes across as the “biggest loser.” Unlike other programs (in both documentary and fiction realms), which consume themselves with endeavoring to paint the plight of the minority citizen in shades of self-pitying helplessness—with a frequently less-than-subtle nod to a (typically white) social justice warrior, who rides in like a knight in shining armor to save the damsel in distress—Vice Principals is a ruthless portrait of the victimizers; making no excuses, and taking no… well, maybe a few prisoners.

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Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) sizes up her two infantile and devious cohorts in HBO’s Vice Principals. © 2016, HBO Networks.

When Dr. Belinda Brown (played superbly by Kimberly Hebert Gregory)—the impossible-not-to-be-enamored-with principal who sets the show in motion—is brutally forced out of its equation at the end of the first season, one feels a profound sense of loss. But not only hers: ours, as well. (If anything, Dr. Brown likely considers herself released from the toxic environment of her fellow protagonists’ making.) It is our loss to not have her as a prominent part of the show’s perversely hysterical conversation anymore, being left to contend exclusively with the petty hooligans who have taken her place. In actuality, at the start of the second season’s premiere episode, we find Dr. Brown alive and well—reunited with her husband and two kids, and living a good distance from the deranged vice principals who attempted to ruin her life (and very nearly succeeded). When she begins to hint at her own departure from the show’s narrative, it not-so-subtly calls to mind the departure of our country’s previous commander-in-chief—whom we’ve since seen skydiving, vacationing with his family, and generally conducting himself like an all-around decent human being. All the while, total chaos and insanity looms in the place he used to sit, and a nation is left watching history re-play itself out like a warped VHS tape of white power rallies, devastating hurricanes, incredulous White House leaks, presidential scandals, and arrogant white kids with bad haircuts and polo shirts, armed with tiki torches to defend poorly sculpted monuments of the Confederacy (just when you think you’ve seen it all…) It’s hard to watch this last season of Vice Principals and not blow a wish for Dr. Brown to come back and give one more inspirational pep rally in the North Jackson High School auditorium—just to feel a tingle of hope, that all is not (yet) lost.

Looking back, the first season was a chore for many to sit through: it garnered justifiable criticism for subjecting viewers to an exhaustive, vicarious experience of racist/sexist intimidation and persecution—which so closely echoes the real-life experiences lived by millions of Americans. But while the show certainly has its fair share of “cover my eyes ’cause I can’t bear to see where this goes” moments, I would argue that it remains a rewarding, perhaps even necessary experience for white Americans (especially white men). It forces the viewer to witness the devastating outcomes of intolerance, but not from an easy “scared straight” perspective; instead, the viewer actually has to do some work—to connect the dots between the shallow instincts that compel a person to behave in such a hateful fashion, and the reality such a person must effectively disengage from in order to fulfill such absolute hate. For hate is, ultimately, an uninhabitable condition (something one needs constant reminding of at this point in time). To highlight this truth, there comes a moment in every episode during which VP Neal Gamby (our anti-hero-cum-protagonist, played by McBride) will catch himself in the middle of some atrociously mean-spirited act—typically provoked by his far more nihilistic partner-in-crime, VP Russell—and question his ability to follow through with his ruthless vows, eventually caving in to his own vulnerability. In these moments, the viewer recognizes that even the Scroogiest of conservative white men has a soft spot, somewhere deep down; and in this act of empathetic recognition, the viewer finds their own embers of hateful inclination slowly sizzling out. (In turn, viewers with an overtly racist and/or sexist inclination—who might, at first glance, align themselves with the diabolic intentions of Russell and Gamby—are bound to cave in by the first season’s conclusion, upon realizing the fruitless and dispiriting outcome of the protagonists’ hate.)

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Vice principals Lee Russell (left, Walton Goggins) and Neal Gamby (right, Danny McBride) contend with the unsustainability of their own prejudices. © 2016, HBO Networks.

Since the inauguration of 45, I’ve been troubled by the response of many a despairing liberal to the ill-informed cocktail of bigotry and racial intimidation perpetuated by the president and his base. On the one hand, it seemed to me the reaction of liberals was disproportionately soft—compared to the out-and-out violence (verbal, physical, psychological) that we found ourselves up against; on the other, it seemed a pretty ill-advised approach to fight fire with fire: to attempt and wipe out hate by singling out and shaming the haters, many of whom are so blinded by their own misinformation that they fail to recognize their bigotry as hatred incarnate. I recall beating my head against a wall (literally), and exchanging a series of frustrated emails with friends, most of which culminated with a half-joking recommendation that we split the country in half, effectively separating the evolutionists from the devolutionists. In seeking a broader perspective, I found myself drawn to the brilliant and frequently sardonic songs of Randy Newman, which have—throughout the past four-plus decades—effectively charted the folly of the stupid white man in America; sans effigies, platitudes, or other common forms of creative scapegoating. And I asked myself: Where are the Randy Newmans of today? Where are the Gore Vidals, the James Baldwins, the Nina Simones? How come every visible attempt at protesting the ignorant insanity of 45’s America appears to swing toward the two outer extremes of timid sloganeering and destructive violence? (Fortunately, not long after I went through this line of questioning, it was announced that Mr. Newman would be releasing a new studio album later this year—providing a much-needed salve. Far less fortunately, so many voices belonging to people of color have been effectively suppressed, repressed, depressed, or extinguished altogether; rendering it difficult for the range of creative perspectives the country ought to be represented by to truly flourish—and sentencing the fate of acceptable social protest to a kneel in a football stadium.)

Setting aside the apparent racial intolerance that has festered throughout the country (and the Russian interference that reinforced this intolerance through strategic interventions on social media), part of this dilemma likely stems from another root cause of 45’s presidency: the mindset underlying that lamentable term, “political correctness.” In hindsight, it is difficult to imagine 45’s candidacy gaining the kind of momentum it generated without the scapegoat of liberal hyper-sensitivity. Every slogan developed throughout his campaign served to highlight this critique: from “crooked Hillary,” to “bad hombres,” to “what a nasty woman,” to the cringe-inducing “he can grab my…,” to the swiftly appropriated “deplorable and proud of it,” the racial hatred permeating the campaign’s tone was matched only by its general disdain for pre-meditated and/or sensible syntax. And as with all false generalizations and stereotypes throughout history, there was, in fact, a justifiable criticism at the onset of this profane game of Chinese whispers. Namely, the criticism of the left’s increasingly rigid thinking on the subject of policing language: a well-intentioned effort to nip hate speech in the bud, but one that has frequently neglected to take into account the Quixotic nature of its own pursuit. For just like the idealist of Cervantes’ great novel, the “P.C. police” (as they’re commonly referred to by irritable right-wingers) often find themselves chasing windmills and missing the forest for the trees: so wrapped up in the semantics of isolated incidents, they lose sight of the motivators behind the language they are policing—which might foreseeably range from absolute, vitriolic hatred; to an infantile desire to provoke or offend; to sheer ignorance of the meanings attached to the words one has chosen.

It is within this context that Vice Principals presents a swooping breath of fresh, tension-splitting air. Although the premise of the show is itself a persistently tense exercise in caustic polarization, the manner in which it mirrors the real-life tensions surrounding its creation (considering that the first season’s airing coincided with the peak of the 2016 election) serves to deflate the pressure accompanying its subject matter. Here we find three character types that are frequently subject to the “politically correct” treatment—an effeminate, plausibly closeted gay man; a heavyweight divorcé; and a well-educated woman of color—released from the popular liberal’s cocoon of cultural suffocation, and allowed to live and breathe as characters that are every bit as nuanced as they are dense; almost like actual people. And if the show has a secret ingredient in the recipe of its greatness, it most likely lies within this astute recognition that vilification and deification are equally ineffectual tropes (both in narrative terms, and in lived reality). It would be easy—all too easy—to rewrite the show with Gamby and Russell (embodied by the relentlessly brilliant Walton Goggins) as dyed-in-the-wool hate-mongers, with a cheaply sketched-in backstory of how they came to be so hateful (e.g. childhood abuse; bullying; exposure to violent crime): the rest of the series—assuming the form of a prime-time melodrama—would essentially write itself, with the characters either achieving progress towards an awareness of the origins for their respective prejudices; or, conversely, digging their heels in deeper and, eventually, falling on the sword of their own bigotry. Not only would such a literal execution of the premise be uninteresting: it would render it increasingly difficult for the actors to bring any real pathos or complexity to their characters, since such a narrative is ultimately a glorified journey from point A to point B. In other words, this more “sensitized” approach would present the antithesis of a real person’s life journey, which invariably presents a more complex trajectory through various stages of change and emotional/intellectual growth.

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Gregory (right) provides the heart and soul, and Goggins (left) the diabolical thrust behind Vice Principals—the only great satire thus far broadcast on American television in the year 2017. © 2016, HBO Networks.

Rather than taking the easy way out of contending with bigoted protagonists, Hill and McBride have boldly chosen the more challenging, and far more rewarding narrative approach. In Gamby and Russell, they have created two strangely… lovable bigots. Not that one loves them because of their bigotry (the show is structured in such a way that such sympathies are unlikely, at worst); one loves them in spite of the raging ignorance and intolerance that continually threatens to swallow them whole. Instead of being vilified and caricatured as two creatures from the black lagoon who’ve arisen to claim some distorted interpretation of supremacy, Gamby and Russell are just two stupid white boys with no real grasp on the concept of emotional maturity—and watching their psyches disintegrate from episode to episode is every bit as comical as it is maddening. Not unlike our current president, whose racist inclinations frequently appear to stem less from an inherent sense of racial superiority (I mean, just look at him), but more from a cynically strategic approach to soliciting support from pockets of the U.S. voter base, which any seasoned politician with a modicum of decency would refuse to entertain (e.g. David Duke and his cohort, and at least half of our Presidential Cabinet). But the real masterstroke of Vice Principals is that, despite the uncanny parallels between our presidential administration and the admin of North Jackson High, the show succeeds precisely where the president’s administration has failed: by actually making us care about the fate of its ignorant protagonists.

It is safe to say, at this point, that hardly a person in the country—or, more broadly, on the face of the earth—can be bothered to care about the personal fate of the 45th president. It is, in fact, difficult to think of any figure in our nation’s history who has been so widely (and so justifiably) reviled, across the board of political identification and cultural affiliation. And true to form, 45 has surrounded himself with individuals who only serve to further dehumanize his public persona: compounding the reality television aesthetic of his own making, and continually escalating the threshold of public disdain. And I would here argue that it is this aesthetic of idiocy—this constant talking down to the citizens of a country who, by and large, know they deserve better—that presents the biggest hurdle for his detractors to surmount. The brilliantly monotonous condescension of Maxine Waters, in addressing one of the president’s multiple administrative chumps, Steve Mnuchin, provides a case study in the only appropriate way one can respond to such arrogant bluster: consistently raising the point (“reclaiming my time”) of our administration’s inadequacy, incompetency, and seemingly interminable disrespect towards the citizens whose interests it has been charged to uphold.

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Dr. Belinda Brown: carrying on with conviction and humor. © 2016, HBO Networks.

Likewise, in Season 2 of Vice Principals, Dr. Brown brilliantly dismantles Neal Gamby’s initial hypothesis regarding his violent assault at the culmination of Season 1: upon being accused of Gamby’s attempted murder, the former Jackson High Principal scoffs at this suggestion, instead drawing Gamby’s attention to a tattoo she has had affixed to her back—depicting her two former vice principals actually eating shit, while smiling and amorously holding hands. It’s her own personal idea of revenge: a gesture that hilariously highlights the racial divide at the heart of Season 1’s tension. For whereas the white male testosterone pumping through Gamby’s and Russell’s systems repeatedly compels them to acts of childish violence and lashing out, the cool “been there, done that” attitude of Dr. Brown—whose past experiences with indignant white men can only be imagined by the viewer—empowers her to keep her calm and carry on with humor and conviction: two things the country (if not the world) is in most dire need of now.

It has yet to be seen how the remainder of the series will play itself out. As Russell and Gamby delve deeper into their farcical investigation of Gamby’s shooting, one can’t help but think of the President’s own glorified wild goose chase: to single out his dissenters, and thereby satiate his acolytes with a gushing fountain of persecutory accusations directed at the liberals they all thumbed their noses at this last election (or, to expand upon this metaphor with an even more precise one, the noses they cut off to spite their own faces). Two well-played scenes in the most recently aired episode serve to highlight this real-life parallel: in one, Gamby enlists a black security guard from the school to search the lockers of multiple black students, all of whom he has targeted as prime suspects for his attempted assassination (without a shred of evidence, of course). After finding nothing but homework, textbooks, and a scientific calculator in one boy’s locker, the security guard observes in a disheartened tone: “Man, you actually made me think he was guilty!” The other scene in question entails Russell planting a hot mic in the teacher’s break room, in order to tune in to the gossip taking place behind his back (most of it directed at his gaudy wardrobe, social awkwardness, and apparently deadly halitosis): when he later proceeds to fire his entire faculty for subversion, one immediately thinks of Sean Spicer, Steve Bannon, Reince Preibus, Sally Yates, Michael Flynn; the Mooch.

For some prospective viewers, this will all prove a little too much too soon. And yet, in bringing ourselves to truly care about the fate(s) of Gamby and Russell—in wanting them to get at least a little woke; to stop being such selfish assholes, and to play a little bit nicer—there’s a chance we might bring ourselves to care a smidge more about the fate of this altogether asinine administration, along with the misguided minions who stubbornly refuse to withdraw their support for it. In turn, and for better or worse, it is they who now dictate the fate of our nation.

Indigestion’s a pain.

I found myself in the midst of an especially bad bout last night, tossing and turning in bed, struggling to fall back asleep. In such instances, I occasionally find myself achieving a heightened level of awareness and concentration: as if hyper-awareness of one’s natural (or unnatural, as the case might be) biological functions carried with it an increased sensitivity to other surrounding circumstances.

In this instance, I found myself dwelling upon a recent essay in-progress, which seems to be going nowhere slow. The subject of my reluctant essay is the suburban experience (more specifically: American films that have explored suburban themes in a Mythical vein). It’s one of those frustrating instances where the writer knows what he wants to convey—even how he wants to convey it—but once all the pieces are lined up together, they no longer convey what was meant to be conveyed.

I’m reminded now of a startling incident that occurred earlier in my workday, as I was driving a client back to her residence—which was located in a somewhat run-down suburban neighborhood. As we drove past some smartly structured houses, I offered some casual observations to break the silence of the drive—small talk about some of the more striking residences, many of which featured alarmingly pointed rooftops. It was then that my client interjected a most unexpected anecdote: “Yeah… A lady shot her two kids in the head last night, over there by that school. I guess she had told the cops the world was a terrible place, and she didn’t want them living in it anymore.”

Understandably, I found myself at a loss to form a suitable response. I’m certain I said something nominal and insufficient, something along the lines of “that’s horrific,” or “how terrible.” It was a jolting reminder of just how fleeting and cruel this life can be. It also underscored the inadequacy of my writings on suburbia, which paled in comparison to this shocking anecdote—having failed to represent the surreal perversity of the suburban experience, in its full scope. A recently released Sun Kil Moon record came to mind, as well. In the opening track, “God Bless Ohio” (a follow-up, of sorts, to the preceding “Carry Me Ohio”), songwriter Mark Kozelek pays tribute to the Northern gothic elements of Midwestern living, touching upon a range of suburban issues: alcoholism; A.A. meetings; the loneliness of being a child; nursing homes; psychotherapy; human trafficking; mass killings.

Maybe I should just scrap my essay and let Kozelek’s song speak for me, instead.


Sleeplessness has been a recurring motif of 2017 for me. During the day, I frequently find myself struggling to concentrate on basic tasks—easily distracted by the latest development in the investigation of our president’s relationship with Russian oligarchs and government operatives, as well as the on-going toll of devastation mounted by a conscience-free Congress and an administrative agenda fueled by corporate greed, short-term private gain, and a stiff middle finger to the vast majority of our country’s population. I was struck by a recent episode of Bill Maher’s show on HBO, in which Dr. Cornel West and David Frum were guest panelists. In an exchange that was (admittedly) cringe-worthy at times, Maher and West sparred on the subject of the 2016 election: West, who was outspokenly opposed to another Clinton presidency, stood by his idealistic decision to not vote for either of the primary candidates; Maher challenged his decision with an itemization of some notable areas in which the two primary candidates differed from one another, with an emphasis on the compounded harm being inflicted upon minority groups by 45.

Hearing Cornel West’s voice rarely fails to bring me joy: his combination of humor, zeal, and intellect is unsurpassed by his few peers, and his perspective is fiery but reasonable. Watching him spar with Maher on this issue brought to light the deeply personal nature of his investment in politics, and I found myself torn between two equally impassioned points of view. As I think back on the debate, I’m struck by the awkward correlation between religion and politics in this country. Apart from the obvious investment of religious power in American politics, it strikes me that politicians in this country are frequently placed on a similar plane to religious leaders: they are often evaluated as much on abstract moral principles (or lack thereof), as they are on competencies and qualifications. West makes it clear during the debate that his opposition to Hillary Clinton was of a moral nature—a perceived “lack of integrity,” as he defined it. On the flip-side of the argument, we find the pragmatism of the vehemently atheistic Maher, who is able and willing to look past the character flaws of a given politician in order to hone in on the practical, real-life outcomes of their stances and actions.

Setting aside my love of Dr. West (and that tremendous laughter of his), I cannot help but feel a sense of exasperation at our country’s obsession with bringing religion into all facets of life. I’m reminded of an observation shared by a philosophy professor I had in college, who attended multiple symposiums at home and abroad, only to find that European nations have little (if any) of the political hang-ups our country has developed in this regard. Theories of evolution and creationism coexist peaceably; women, atheists, and non-Christian theists are allowed to hold public office without controversy; and outside the Vatican (a unique religious outlier, if ever there was one), it’s unanimously agreed that religion ought not to be a deciding factor in economic and social policy. I think of David Fincher’s American film masterpiece, Se7en, in which the seven deadly sins of Christian folklore provide the foundation for a rigorously coherent series of horrific murders. I think also of real-life horrors committed by the Ku Klux Klan (a white Christian organization); the so-called “conversion therapies” imposed upon gay people in Christian communities; the persecution of victims of rape, in an assortment of forms, under the alarming guise that their assaults may have been “God’s will;” the historical genocide of Native American people, performed in the name of a Christian God and country.

“God bless Ohio
God bless every man
Woman and child
God bless every bag of bones, six feet under the snow
God bless O
God bless O
God bless Ohio”

I think of the recent terrorist attack in Manchester, which stole the lives of 22 unsuspecting concertgoers and injured 120 others. (I will refrain from making mention here of the terrorists responsible for the attack, or the religion of which their organization is a perverse offshoot, seeing as how they have gathered sufficient negative publicity over the years—and it doesn’t seem to be helping any. Perhaps it is best to remove the plank from one’s own eye, first.) I think of all the different religions in the world that provide a foundation for the most appalling crimes against humanity, and I think of the unscrupulous support lent to our current administration by millions of American Christians. I think of that genius of early American cinema, Ernst Lubitsch—having just watched Trouble in Paradise for the first time the night prior. I think of the excruciating cleverness of Lubitsch’s characters; the hilariously amoral, yet totally functional relationships they foster and maintain with one another. I think of Jorge Luis Borges’s beautiful and unassuming essays, compiling assorted theories of eternity and ontology: the power of the human mind to overcome the self-inflicted impositions of religion—and the seeming refusal of the human spirit to embrace the assets of pragmatism. I think of Morrissey’s early song for The Smiths (“Suffer Little Children”) about two highly pragmatic, non-religious sociopaths from a separate, but equally dark chapter in Manchester’s history (Ian Brady and Myra Hindley). I think of the silence on the moors where their innocent victims were slaughtered; I think of the screams and explosions that jolted Manchester Arena on this god-forsaken Monday night. I think also of the solace offered during a non-religious vigil held in Manchester on Tuesday, to mourn lost lives and lost innocence; and the open gestures of solidarity extended by individuals and cities around the world—none of which required the pretense of religion to achieve their intended message.

Oh, human (t)error:
So much to answer for.


I’ve thought a lot (and continue to think) about the ways in which the jolt of last year’s election outcome sent shockwaves pulsing through every facet of the American experience—many of which we have yet to fully appreciate (or, in some cases, even to recognize). I’ve noticed tiny paradigm-shifts taking place in areas of everyday life, some of which are so minute they might be disputed as misperceptions. For instance, there’s the weekly program CBS Sunday Morning, formerly hosted by Charles Osgood and currently represented by Jane Pauley: previous segments on ecology and environmental issues have accentuated the well-documented, factual impact of climate change upon different parts of the planet (many of which provide source material for the show’s closing “moment of nature”). In the most recently aired episode, Jane visits the city of Amsterdam, where she is forced (as commentator) to acknowledge certain obvious changes in the landscape—including a visible rise in the sea level, and subsequent changes in irrigation. A phrase she uses in this segment has been stuck in my mind all week: “whatever the cause.” As in, “whatever the cause of these changes…” As if the matter were still up for debate.

I think of the shifts in media coverage that have historically accompanied drastic regime changes in different countries throughout the world. I wonder to myself how long it might have taken for Mussolini’s state-operated propaganda machine to fully infiltrate popular Italian knowledge, or for Lenin to convince his minions of the evils of Western living.

I imagine this essay reading like a poor man’s attempt at a Mark Kozelek ramble. I’m reminded, again, of my meandering essay on the suburban experience—and how truly difficult it can be to write about something when you actually have some pre-existing knowledge of it (in contrast to the old adage). In a way, such a task is even more difficult than writing about the unfamiliar: at least then, one can quite easily acknowledge and convey the limitations of one’s lived experience. But in the case of a subject that lies close to home, the writer is expected to have some sort of preternatural grasp on the topic—a near-omniscient, no-stone-left-unturned level of understanding. Maybe this is why so many Americans are turned off when a politician fails to publicly answer a question with utmost knowledge and understanding of their personal interests: instead, they’re expected to be godlike magicians, sauntering into town on the campaign trail and telling everyone exactly what they need (or, more commonly, want) to hear. God forbid a politician should ever be heard saying those three dreaded words: “I don’t know.” Far better to hear someone say: “I am your voice… I alone can fix it.

* * *

I think of the recent return of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s much-beloved television series, Twin Peaks. I think of what a tremendous joy it was, watching those first two hours of this new 18-part series—momentarily forgetting about issues of popularized ignorance and man-made atrocity (of both the religious and the non-religious variety). I’m grateful for creators—true creators—like Lynch and Frost, who seemingly have made it their lot in life to build upon and restore popularity to Myth (the only human creation that continues to transcend pure reason and pure religion). It makes me feel lucky to be alive, to witness the brilliant and awe-inspiring fruits of their efforts. I hope these efforts—and the efforts of other keepers of the flame—are ample enough to keep the Myth alive, for all the atrocities that are coming down the pipeline.

And I continue trying to shake my hyper-awareness of how terrible things have gotten. I continue trying to just live life, for what it’s worth, and not let it bring me down. But damn: indigestion’s a pain.