Why you should see Rush, from someone who thought it was just okay:

I think it’s safe to say that Ron Howard is an inconsistent, if not completely uninteresting, director, and his work argues solidly against him having any particular ideology beyond “people believe different things!” And Howard is accordingly noncommittal (some might say “conflicted”) in his new film, Rush, which follows the competition between Formula 1 drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt, culminating in the dramatic 1976 season.

Some critics have said that Rush is Howard’s best since Apollo 13 (I haven’t seen any that actually compare the two, but maybe I’m looking in the wrong place.) It speaks to Howard’s erratic track record that I neither agree with that quality assessment nor think those two films are similar in any significant way. Rush has a more sensational script and lousier acting (apologies to Daniel Bruhl, who is fantastic) than Frost/Nixon, which would be my pick for “Best Ron Howard film recently”, whatever that means. And if my memory serves me right, Apollo 13 was drawn out and incredibly stressful, neither of which I’d say about Rush. If I had to compare it to an earlier work, I’d say that Rush is actually most similar to Backdraft, which has its hackneyed moments and traffics in over-the-top visual effects, but is actually pretty effective when it gets down to certain emotional realities. Despite some pretty glaring insufficiencies, I ended up liking Rush, which has proved to be a somewhat anomalous example of not-great pre-Oscar season fare that is nevertheless liked by pretty much everyone.

So here’s the fairly standard setup: two athletes who have completely conflicting approaches to their sport become obsessed with one-upping each other, leading to an exciting conclusion when, inevitably, only one of them will win. Hunt is shown as a reckless, womanizing cad, while Lauda is positioned as a quiet, pragmatic-to-a-fault genius who “nobody likes” (this assertion is repeated incessantly throughout the film, mostly by Hunt, who is in turn constantly labeled an “asshole.”) The bizarre psychology of professional car racing is reduced to devil-may-care pontificating from Hunt and exaggeratedly rational lectures about risk percentages from Lauda, and not much room is left for context. Secondary characters are left totally undeveloped—Hunt’s ex-wife is less significant than his grating, pompous team owner, and Lauda’s wife is little more than a beautiful symbol of the world that exists outside of racing. 

But if you take all of that with a grain of salt, the story is an extremely good one. The film’s most pivotal event is Lauda’s horrific crash at the Nürburgring in August 1976, which traps him in the wreckage of his vehicle, causing him to suffer near-fatal and permanently disfiguring burns. Daniel Bruhl does a wonderful job of allowing glimpses of his character’s complex inner life to show through dialogue (and a large set of prosthetic teeth) that predominantly offers things at face value. I’m excited that he’s in two big films this Fall, the other one being the upcoming Wikileaks thriller The Fifth Estate. There are several moments when Bruhl’s deadpan delivery cuts through the film’s artifice, bringing a plot that tends to follow Hunt through boring montages of boisterous activity back to the space where it works most effectively.

In real life, at the time of the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, Lauda had more than twice the points of his closest followers that season, a fact that the film glosses over when it expects us to cheer for Hunt’s resulting shot at the World Champion title. What’s more interesting is that the film also leads us to believe, via Lauda’s narration, that Hunt gave up racing right after his single World Championship. A closing montage that shows him working as a broadcaster effectively cuts the legs off of Hunt’s whole “live like each day is your last” philosophy and makes him appear to be utterly full of shit. In actuality, Hunt didn’t retire until three years later, and after that staged several comebacks. This misleading bit of voice-over is an example of the film’s strangely rigid presentation of Hunt and Lauda’s philosophies as logical opposites: it ends with a misrepresentation of Hunt that comes straight from Lauda’s mouth, mostly for the convenience of showing that they went in different directions. 

Nevertheless, the ending narration also serves to emphasize something that’s not obvious from the film’s posters, but becomes clear after Lauda’s fiery accident: he’s the real hero of this film, not Hunt, both in action and in reasoning. In the end, it’s Lauda’s pragmatism that unexpectedly allows him to weigh love over brief glory, a decidedly unconventional climax for a sports film.

If its reductiveness makes it a shallow film overall, Rush nevertheless provides a tidy view into the experience of someone who endured a potentially life-ruining accident, made a miraculous recovery, and then went on to continue dominating at the job that almost killed him. So accuracy is sacrificed to better describe an improbable force of personality. In a weird way, Rush’s sometimes detached look at an intimate competitive rivalry is an effective analog to Lauda’s own worldview, which values pragmatism over sentimentality and clarity over nuance. And if nothing else, Rush offered Lauda the opportunity to reinterpret his own experiences: 

“[After the crash] when I went out in public again in Monza and everybody saw me, they [grimaced] and then looked at my ear. I said “look in my eyes if you are going to talk to me, why are you looking at my burns?” Be polite. I never understood people’s reaction – I always wondered why they were being so stupid. I put a wall around myself and stopped caring about it.

But when I saw the movie, when Daniel Brühl [who plays Lauda] turns around in Monza, I got a shock too. Now I understand the other point of view. I was too busy getting going again and I never saw myself as other people did.”

One final note: word is that to this day, a tiny space on Lauda’s cap, which he has worn constantly since his accident, is worth €1.2 million to advertisers. 

(From an interview with Red Bull, here.) 

I’ve been keeping a running Spotify playlist of my favorite tracks of the year, to which I add selections sporadically when I remember to do so. Obviously this playlist is limited to tracks that are released through Spotify in the U.S., but I recently synced it to my phone and found that it was an interesting, if limited, collection to revisit. One thing I found was that two of my favorite tracks, James Holden’s “Blackpool Late Eighties" and Drake’s "Started From the Bottom," were not musically dissimilar—both rely on a wistful loop characterized by an airy evocation of plunking keys. More interestingly, both tracks use this sound to express a sense of memory. Employing a similar foundation for divergent purposes, both songs emphasize certain elements of the experience of looking backwards.

Drake’s song injects its nostalgia with a sense of urgency. In fact, his memories are a springboard for brash lyrics that channel an imperfect past into a present head-rush of immortality. One of the great things about this track is the way the beat is simultaneously crunchy and languid. While the harmonic progression, such as it is, borders on melancholy, it unfolds with a winking sense of amusement. Aubrey Graham’s lyrics, interpolated with the stop-start beat, sound loose and good-natured even while he’s tossing out casually aggressive phrases like “fuck a fake friend.” This playful inconstancy casts a lighthearted tone over the repetitive loop, making the song’s lack of development another tool for expressing its personality.

While that basically makes the song an extended riff, it’s one that’s full of meaning. He’s celebrating his accomplishments, but he also seems to be acknowledging a role in a family structure that he used to feel alienated from (“I was trying to get it on my own”.) “Started From the Bottom” sounds great, and the video showcases Drake’s sense of humor, but like many of his songs I’ve found that it’s more complex than the novelty-type video would initially suggest. Memory may be elliptical and hard to pin down, but with a little willpower you can force pieces of it into your own agenda. “Started From the Bottom” is basically an expression of that act—literally, in fact, in its incorporation of self-mythologizing references to “No new friends” and the chains he wears “just as a reminder to myself.”

On the other hand, Holden’s “Blackpool Late Eighties” is more formless, expressing no explicit motivation. Holden uses a beat that’s less flashy but more purposeful in its uninterrupted plod towards the finish. Where the Drake beat emphasizes the bravado of being young and untouchable, this one settles into the background, only creeping into the spotlight in the last two minutes when the melodic line starts to lose its shape. But structurally, this seems to me to express the act of remembering, or maybe trying to remember, with a weird accuracy. After nearly two minutes of a moderately paced walking beat, a pretty, asymmetrical melodic fragment burbles into the mix. It gains intensity, undergoes a few minor changes in sound quality, and begins to fragment into a map of related sound points. Eventually, it recedes into the background, while other notes form a shape around the empty space it leaves behind. The last minute eradicates the beat and offers one last protesting twinge of sound before everything fades out.

"Blackpool Late Eighties" appears on James Holden’s album The Inheritors, which was titled after the Wiliam Golding novel. While it’s thematically consistent with the rest of the album, unlike a track like “Renata,” for instance, it seems unconcerned with active manipulation of the song’s content. Wikipedia’s entry for the novel, which I haven’t read, describes the characters as a group of Neanderthals who lack “the kinds of memories that create culture.” The memory expressed here seems to be of a kind that works implicitly, containing little sense within itself of an identity or direction.

While the Drake song demonstrates someone remembering as an act of identity creation, the Holden song seems to be about how it feels to remember and eventually forget. To borrow a line from one of these songs (the one with lyrics), I just think it’s funny how it goes. There’s power in harnessing your memories, but there’s also meaning in acknowledging the absence of the things that eventually get lost.

(Source: Spotify)

Tags: drake holden

This is a contender for my favorite Harry Nilsson song, because it’s lovely but completely miserable. It’s Nilsson’s plea to a lover not to leave him, but what makes these lyrics so dark is their confused, internal nature. Over the course of three minutes our singer makes his way through sad acceptance, defensiveness, sheepish penitence, angry accusations, desertion of all logic, empty bargaining, and desperate pleading. All of this progresses methodically, in Nilsson’s characteristically sweet tone, with both the arrangement and vocal delivery building in intensity until the final dolorous coda. Musically, it lifts and sags in a bittersweet analogue to the singer’s own tumultuous life.

One of the most poignant aspects of this song is the wrongful assumption that you can promise to feel something. This person is so desperate not to be abandoned that he pledges to develop an emotional connection to his significant other’s mother and “mother’s sister.” On a realistic level, assuming that he has previously had a bad relationship with these two relatives, this amounts to proclaiming that he’ll fake his way through the next period of their relationship. But on the other hand, he really sounds like he means it. Only a profoundly misled person would believe that it’s possible to change your level of love for someone through sheer force of will, and the way he equates the process with simply stopping to kiss someone on the way to work every morning is brutally sad.

There’s a greater tragedy here than the dissolution of a relationship. At the end of the song Nilsson sings that “maybe…things would be better if only a letter would come.” I don’t know what letter he’s referring to. It could be one he’s sent himself, or one that he’s expecting to get, but the reference is oblique enough to call into question whether most of this muddled argument is taking place inside the singer’s head. Either way the letter represents an abstract notion of salvation that once again ties the potential repair of a broken life to a specific event. Childish notions abound in Nilsson’s catalogue—often, they’re a source of humor and they comprise a fundamental aspect of his charm. Here he uses a somewhat jokey phrasing to make an uncomfortably candid observation about his perpetual adolescence: “You say I’m acting just like a kid/ but maybe I’m doing what I’m doing/ because I done what I did when I was a kid.”

Nilsson loved double entendres, number games, hidden drug references, and crass jokes, but his musical playfulness could at times suggest both bitter self-flagellation and the angry, tearful mumbling of a little boy who has just been chastised. Listening to “Maybe,” it’s easy to inhabit either of those emotional states. For my part, I remember very clearly being about 3 or 4 and having done something bratty that forced my mother to scold me. Observing that after an hour or two I was possibly more upset than I needed to be, she carefully explained to me that when she was angry, it didn’t mean she didn’t love me. It was an intense relief. I hadn’t known.

But the closest we get to relief in “Maybe” is a sense of falling action. Harry’s cover art, a photo of a young Nilsson taken after his mother had abruptly moved them from Brooklyn to California, emphasizes the impression (an accurate one according to the documented events of his life) of a kid forced to grow up too fast. Though we can assume that in this song he’s jealously addressing a woman (“maybe you have found another man/ well how can you enjoy his touch, knowing that I love you so much”) he sounds through most of it like a child grieving for his parent, a bruised person who wasn’t told what he needed to know.

(Source: Spotify)

If you’ve spent your post-college years, as I have, engaged in an elliptical, mistrustful relationship with rock music, then The Men present a great argument against deferring to experience. Here’s a band that operates firmly in well-trodden territory in terms of instrumentation and song structure, seems to enjoy (sub)genre-hopping, and are the proud bearers of a name that evokes archetypical masculinity as much as anonymity. On paper, I wouldn’t see what’s so special about them. And that might lead me to assume that, like some of their peers, they have more to offer those who actively participate in a subculture built around cross-pollinating live shows and clearly defined ideals. In practice, however, I like just about everything they’ve done, even as they swing closer to a well-trodden traditionalist path.

New Moon, their album from earlier this year, is as guileless as rock music comes these days. Everything from the song titles (“Open the Door,” “I Saw Her Face,” “The Brass”) to the sludgy mix of piano, harmonica, and percussion, to the shared vocal duties seems deliberately candid. Mid-album ode “I Saw Her Face” is a mild-mannered onslaught of nostalgic references—it’s hard not hear a distorted echo of John Lennon’s “Oh Yoko” in the words “In the middle of a dream…I saw her face.” Or to think of Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” during that slightly garbled bridge on “Freaky.”

This tendency to search for neat reference points is the reason I don’t trust myself to make judgments on a piece of music until I’ve shaken off my literal tendencies by listening a few times. The problem is that straightforward “rock” music often sounds boring to me in the initial phase, to the extent that I can’t separate it from an overarching tradition, (a tradition that I’ve found more and more difficult to enjoy as I’ve learned to recognize its exclusionary foundations.) The Men somehow tap into my desire for musical touch points while also retaining an interesting identity.

I think this is due to the fact that the references are not implied, but are rather explicit, and are based on tune fragments and lyrical generalities— the things that are gateways to the listening experience (this reminds me of an essay I read about David Cronenberg wherein the author basically claimed that because the misogyny in his films is obvious, it’s not damaging.) Their songs are also well-constructed enough that several of them sound like country standards. Those characteristics make their music an explicit invitation to interpret. Nobody comes to the listening experience totally clean, so why not let your listeners revel in their own sullied, biased hearing?

With that technique in mind, it’s to their credit that The Men’s third album is a pretty uncool move in musical terms. See for instance the charmingly back porch pronunciation of “GI-TAR” in “Open the Door”, which kicks off the album. But then comes the road-stomping follow-up, “Half Angel Half Light,” and the Meat Puppets-like “Without a Face.” This mix of abrupt moments of stylistic contrast into an album with such a strong overarching tonal character indicates an amusing self-awareness. Repeated listens reveal existential complexity beneath the alliterative imagery. A current of disillusionment runs parallel to the flow of the songs (“The rape of time, shifting the seeds of my mind”), but somehow the music is cut with enough passion that it retains its essential feeling of faith. New Moon deliberately reverses the effect of including “Country Song” and “Candy” on their previous album, Open Your Heart.

So, yes, part of the appeal is that New Moon sounds like The Men are acknowledging a relationship with musicians that came before them. When I first heard “I Saw Her Face,” I thought it sounded like Neil Young and Crazy Horse, a classic country tune fed through Weld’s looming amplifiers. There’s probably no better musical Virgil than Young to help you sort through layers of nostalgia. He was responsible for both lyrical vagaries and homages to rural life with folk rock groups Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and his later solo career has wavered between messy guitar rock, aggressive message music, and periodic revivals of his folk-country roots. Sometimes those traditions were harshly abrupt: Tonight’s the Night’s sprawled-open visceral jam sessions followed closely on the heels of the spacious, enigmatic On the Beach (and who could forget the deliberately out-of-place Everybody’s Rockin’?) And Young himself once beautifully interpreted that pristine example of country-pop longing, “Oh, Lonesome Me.”

Music functions differently when it’s new to you and when you know what’s coming. Then there’s the after-echo that comes when you’re not actively listening to the music, sometimes a significant experience in itself. These iterations of the experience make listening emotionally complex. It’s possible also (and I think it’s true for me) that when music snakes its way into multiple aspects of the consumption experience it leaves the listener increasingly vulnerable to emotional dissonance.

In reality, music that is functionally abrasive often creates an aesthetically democratizing experience. Turn the sound up loud enough and you can more or less assume that everyone in the room is feeling the same thing. But I think there’s also a physical response that comes from mixing noisy elements with familiar song structure or harmonies— a kind of nagging desire for the fulfillment of overwhelming noise, constantly struck down by the specificity of personal associations. Neil Young and Crazy Horse were the first band to give me that kind of experience, which may be the main reason I think of them when I listen to New Moon. It’s something you often feel at live shows when a band will string along a four minute song into 10 or 20 minutes of distortion. And it’s something that’s present in a strangely concrete form in the music of The Men, where they waver between plaintive country songwriting, blaring guitar noise, and ragged but impassioned harmonies. Though their newest album engages most straightforwardly with nostalgia, there’s an even stronger implication that what you hear is always a mixture of what the music does to you and what you are doing to the music. New Moon’s construction seems to acknowledge that fact, even invite it, and it gives their every-man music a strange power of clarity through flexibility.

(Source: Spotify)

In his “Collaborators" interview about his role in the recording of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, Chilly Gonzales states that “harmony is still an underused musical weapon these days in the pop landscape.” He’s correct in observing that pop today tends to place a previously unheard of amount of attention on timbre and texture. In its most simplified form this is the justification for recycling older hits into new  confections that maintain the harmonics but none of the surface quality or emotional content of their progenitors. But I do take issue with his use of the word “still,” which glosses over the fact that harmony and melody were the primary factors in the composition of hundreds of years of classical music, were explored incessantly by most of the pop music of the 20th century, and remain the building blocks for the Western concept of ”songwriting”. 

Today’s pop music is deep in the process of freeing itself from those constraints, and reorganizing the priorities that go into the mass production of music, which feeds that powerful, uninterrupted stream of noise that comes from radio, television, and various other unavoidable outlets. Youtube plays a large role in mass media delivery but also in guiding attention towards different aspects of sound and emotive communication. It seems unfair to imply that there is some sort of uninterrupted neglect of a musical concept when to me it looks more like the internet is just starting to loosen the grip that our musical past has on us. I’d be inclined to argue that we gain more by pushing beyond those traditional frameworks than by trying to re-orient them as the central concern of popular music.

I should say that I don’t deny the value of focusing on one particular aspect of music—I actually think it’s crucial to innovation, and if I had to pick an element that moves me most directly, it would surely be harmony. It just seems limiting to describe popular music as a culture in terms of what it isn’t, rather than what it is and has been (or what it could become!) Musical culture overall will inevitably move beyond a particular mindset, whether it comes from a writer, a musician, or a fan.

On the other hand, creating sound with a reductive approach can be truly rewarding, as I’m sure fans of Gonzales’ work would attest. One artist who stays focused on exploring harmony in a way that I find truly pushes my ear is Panda Bear, whose complex manipulation of chord structure and meter on his album Tomboy was both emotional and mathematical in the way that Gonzales describes. You can hear this very clearly in the track above, “Friendship Bracelet,” which draws out a chain of chord changes as long as harmonically possible. His appearance on the Daft Punk album is probably my favorite after the first few listens. Interestingly, in his interview he didn’t really talk about harmony at all, instead mentioning rhythm and “the actual sounds themselves” as the things that draw people in.

(Source: Spotify)

Michael Haneke’s Amour

After seeing Yves Montmayeur’s documentary Michael H—Profession: Director at Tribeca Film Festival a few weeks ago, I’ve been considering what I now know about Haneke as a person in relation to Amour, undoubtedly one of the most brutally direct films of the last year. Haneke’s interview style both confirms and complicates the viewpoint conveyed in the film. His blithe comments on violence (“In real life, animals die, children die”)* are sometimes punctuated with a smile or a spontaneous giggle. Meanwhile he acknowledges, at times explicitly, that the greatest act of cruelty is wielded by him, the director, against his audience.

Nobody does soul-crushing as well as Michael Haneke, which is why the title of the New Yorker’s 2009 profile, “Happy Haneke”, was both hilarious and, as the piece revealed, apt. Although it hides a demanding personality, Haneke has an outwardly pleasant demeanor that stands in contrast to his dour subject matter. Similarly, while his visual sense is undeniably clear and beautiful, he uses it to frame narratively opaque films. This contrast between content and delivery allows Haneke to both present starkly undisguised philosophical statements and to insist convincingly that he has no single agenda. It’s hard to know what to make of such a person. As a human being and as a director he is somehow both passionate and coldly clinical. But really, why wouldn’t someone like Haneke be happy? He’s an avid participant in the meritocratic rat race, who also engages wholeheartedly in the aesthetic destruction of institutions. In that sense he occupies a uniquely comfortable position of truly having it both ways.

Haneke’s style of directing is shown in Michael H. to be alternately nurturing and antagonistic. Many of his actors express how taxing it is to work under a leader with such boundless energy and ruthlessly precise visions. Emmanuelle Riva is shown in between takes during the filming of Amour, fully made up as the mentally regressing invalid she portrays, and practically groaning with real physical and emotional exhaustion. In another scene, we see Haneke exuberantly leading a group of University aged theater actors through a scene from Chekhov. Later, Haneke orchestrates a scene from The White Ribbon in which a father beats his child, demonstrating the younger actor’s cowering movements with both precision and a certain amount of relish.

Coming from this man, Amour is a punishing offering that in its plausibility is also something of a conciliatory gesture. Many of Haneke’s other films carry a kind of detachment in their distant settings (the dim past of pre-war Austria, a post-apocalyptic future) or their impossibly perfect progressions (the interweaving stories in Code Unknown, the steady march toward death in Funny Games.) Amour instead places us calmly in the center of the stable, settled lifestyle of an elderly couple, Anne and Georges, and then lets time contort it into layers of suffering. Haneke himself is 71 and married. He states plainly in one interview that he fears suffering more than anything else in the world. Amour then may have the distinction of being as much a punishment of himself as his audience.

In the film we are treated to certain details: Anne’s former career as a piano teacher, the couple’s love of books, a successful and emotionally distant daughter, etc. But the characters have hardly passed prototypical status before the intimate surroundings become a kind of pressure cooker, forcing the swift evolution of these persons, demonstrated to be “civilized” and “cultured”, into monsters. Haneke’s motivating force seems to be a disgust with the human need for order, and the perversity of bourgeois pleasures. In this context, professionalized society takes on echoes of Fascism, and the ties of modern comforts to the dehumanizing aging process are more or less direct.

Haneke was born in Munich during WWII, and raised in the placid outer realms of post-war Vienna. His worldview conveys a kind of strident, blanket social condemnation that goes far deeper than the surface shock value of his most “memorable” scenes. In fact, one thing I disliked about the documentary was its rigid dedication to showing clips of sudden violence, which did a disservice to Haneke’s skill in creating an unsettled atmosphere that can’t be explained by one event (Cache scared me out of my mind even though almost nothing happens in the first hour.)

Amour achieves this feeling of terror by marring its calm surface with disfiguring elements. These range from the desperate disruption of social conventions, like family and responsibility, to the visual style itself, which selects tropes from the horror genre to pervert this seemingly safe space. Accordingly, a rare scene in which Georges emerges from the apartment is in the form of a dream sequence impersonating a horror film. It’s a pretty fertile setup: the nice old couple down the hall, normal to all appearances, are actually engulfed in a scene of unimaginably grotesque conditions behind the door of their apartment.

In Haneke’s version, the apartment remains a kind of idyll, though a crumbling, contorted one.  As Anne devolves further into a childlike mental state, her descent is ragged and inelegant, the inverse of an infant’s wonder at the world. Her monstrosity becomes a condemnation, and Georges’ devotion takes on a note of abuse. The few outside intrusions come from the couple’s daughter, whose frightful fits of emotion in the film’s second half clatter hypocritically against her earlier cold surface, and the mercenary nurse who Georges disposes of capably. These two minor characters seem to be deliberately similar, creating a parallel between an inability to provide appropriate care and an inability to appropriately feel. As the family’s emotions are outsourced and professionalized to the same degree as home care, an impossible snarl is created, the only outcome of which is aggression.

When I think back to the film I remember two shots: the moment when Georges slaps his wife, a savage instinct overtaking him as he tries to coax life-sustaining food into her mouth, and the curiously long shot of him stripping the petals from a bunch of flowers that he will use to decorate Anne’s deathbed. Rituals, it seems, do not keep us from being animals. In fact, Anne’s entire decline is dependent on the conditions we cultivate every day—the tidy apartments, clean water and available food, the luxuries of pupils, legacies, physical and emotional warmth. Haneke’s version of the surreal draws from the same pool of experience we feed in our daily lives, and so it feels real and inevitable.

I think this is why I liked his 2009 film The White Ribbon so much. An austere fable about inhumanity, it managed to darken the idyllic haze of pre-war Austria enough to convey the inevitability of the Great War, that defining event of mass disillusionment, in the aftermath of which Freud wrote: “the state has forbidden to the individual the practice of wrong-doing, not because it desires to abolish it, but because it wants to monopolize it.”* The White Ribbon seemed to explain the root of mistrust in the rest of Haneke’s work. The other horrors he’s created reinforce the idea that social order is an illusion, and conventions nothing but a comfortable structure for moral degradation.

On a fundamental level it is terrifying to see your darkest conclusions illuminated onscreen. But if you carry a certain kind of fear around with you, the experience can also be rather satisfying. Haneke claims the right to resist interpreting his own work (in one of the documentary’s most memorable segments he repeatedly refuses, with growing agitation, to answer the interviewer’s carefully reworded questions). But I think he is very shrewd about the way it will be interpreted by his audience. So Amour gives us none of the gratification of a brutal spectacle and all of its pain, because Georges and Anne are sympathetic, because they are old, and because this isn’t the way we are used to seeing violence portrayed on a screen.

Seeing people hug each other, cry, and shuffle out the door miserably after Amour ended, I felt a mix of anger and fascination at Haneke’s willingness to exploit his audience’s emotions and natural need for closure. But maybe that’s where you can find the one shred of hope that Haneke offers us, that might explain his disconcerting laughter. I suspect that what makes Haneke’s work watchable at all is that there is a strange sense of wonder to it. His specialty is examining ritual—be it self-mutilation, surveillance, or suicide—with a closeness that borders on loving. And in particular, his careful attention to the visual product implies a certain deference, a power in the beholder. At the end of Amour, Georges follows a vision of Anne out the door, grabbing his coat along the way. Maybe Haneke is more generous than we think: why be a victim of an imposed reality, when there’s a view of the way out?

 

*Quoting from memory here, so this is approximate.

*Sigmund Freud, “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death” (1915)

One of the reasons Hip Hop is so compelling is its fundamental investment in the idea that identity is a performance. It accommodates the possibilities of self-definition with a flexibility that is immensely powerful. This album brought that concept into conversation for me more clearly than most I’ve heard; at the same time it related the conflict between what’s “real” and what’s “created” to daily life with unusual detail.

Arguably the Internet has made identity performance more obvious and more mutable all at once. That foot-in-two-realities feeling is replicated over and over in good kid, m.A.A.d. city (“Back to reality we poor, ya bish”). There’s also the sense that looking for a pure experience is a tempting but ultimately hollow pursuit, only achievable through some sort of altered state and an implied dishonesty with one’s self (as heard on “Swimming Pools (Drank)”).  In that sense, even though the album speaks to a very particular experience, it also speaks to the wider experience of possessing a fragmented sense of self. Amazingly, Kendrick Lamar does this by repeatedly tearing down the ideal version of his “performing” identity. 

When I’m listening to Lamar’s lyrics I often hear a refusal to let perfection stand for very long. Dreams are pure but also described with sarcasm, euphoria is coupled with alienation, and youthful hubris hinges on luck. These lyrics represent an interesting kind of self-sacrifice. They also make the yearning for perfection the domain of both the performer and the listener. The effect is that there’s something in the music always nudging, tempting, dragging you on, and in the absence of any final conclusion you end up cycling back…as evidenced by the fact that I’m still wondering at it however many months later.

(Source: Spotify)

"Magic expresses itself above all in shape-shifting and metamorphosis; and in mythology and fairytales, the quest for love entails a quest for recognition of the self which challenges the barriers of conventional expectation. As such, transformations comment on the oppressive narrowness of the prevailing canon of beauty…
…Kobena Mercer’s perceptive analysis of Thriller (1991, 300-16) discusses the two principle metamorphoses— the werewolf and the zombie— which, it is argued, evidence the horror fascination with sexuality whereby gender identity is codified in terms that revolve around the symbolic presence of the monster."

(Excerpted from Sheila Whiteley’s discussion of Michael Jackson’s complicated childhood and public image, in her book Too Much Too Young: Popular Music, Age, and Gender.)

When I read this, I was immediately reminded of a boy I knew in elementary school, partly because of the werewolf motif but also because of the connection to escapism, the childish love of dressing up in costumes, and the conflict of individual sexuality and gender identity with social constrictions. Mike moved to our school partway through the year in 4th grade. I’ll never forget how on his first day, he asked to introduce himself by getting up in front of the class and singing along with great gusto to The Lion King’s “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.” My teacher, who ran the spring Operetta (a glorified sing-along that was nevertheless an extremely popular program) was thrilled to let him do this. But the kids in the class immediately branded him a weirdo.

Actually, the song was well-suited to his voice, which was high and strong, and he kind of had a Jonathan Taylor Thomas cuteness about him, although he was taller and thinner. His hair was blonde and looked styled, where most kids in my grade either had buzz cuts or (I think this started around this time) those frosted, gelled spikes. Basically, he was weirdly self-possessed for a 9-year-old, and he was immediately seen as threatening. My classmates latched onto his perceived flamboyance and talked about him meanly at recess.

I wish I could remember exactly how these conversations went. I just remember that it was generally accepted that he was weird, in a very particular way. And most of the shit-talking related to how he was too “girly.” Mike’s treatment is the most glaring, uncomfortable example in my memory of how homophobia was rampant, even at that early age, as a defense against any behavior that was seen as aberrational. I don’t think, and really hope I’m right, that Mike was ever physically harmed, because most of my classmates were too intimidated by his brassy personality to really start anything, but verbal conflicts certainly occurred.

To his endless credit, Mike completely played into his outsider status, with the aplomb of a much older person. One of the most daring ways he did this was to tell anyone who would listen that he and his father were both wolves, and lived at Valley Falls, one of the town’s public parks. According to him, they took their true forms at night and hunted together for deer. A few kids in particular got very angry at this, because even though they knew it was impossible, there was simply no way to prove that it was untrue. I was fascinated: here was somebody who had come up with what I saw as a very childish fantasy, fit for 4 or 5 year olds, not us 4th graders, and was insisting on its truth even as he was roughly challenged by his peers.

Mike’s divisive storytelling distracted from the fact that none of us really knew anything about his home life, other than that he lived with his dad and his mom didn’t seem to be in the picture. I didn’t know anyone who had been to his house or maintained a strong friendship with him. Eventually, he moved away, I think after 5th grade.

Before he left, though, he made sure to cement his reputation. Because he had immediately become one of my teacher’s favorites with that first day performance, Mike got a plum role when the Spring Operetta finally rolled around. The show was made up of standards and show tunes, and Mike was the only student who got a solo number— he performed “Once in Love With Amy,” complete with a top hat and cane, and to say that he killed it would be an understatement. He was just so far beyond the level of showmanship that anyone expected from us. If he didn’t eventually go into show business, it would be a damn shame. All the parents were extremely impressed and gave him a standing ovation. I had this very clear sense that my peers didn’t know a goddamn thing after all. Most of us hadn’t even known that he was rehearsing the number.

At that age, I was so painfully shy that the amount I participated in any sort of peer interaction was probably pretty limited. I spent most of my recesses writing and acting out an elaborate parody of the movie Clue that involved aliens and intergalactic warfare with two friends who also liked that kind of thing. I wish I could remember being nice to him, but I don’t remember talking to him at all, and it makes me sad to think about this kid being alone, nobly scorning his bullies with his fantasies and his preternatural charisma. And the worst thing about it is that Mike’s character traits were a short step away from what it would take to achieve godlike popularity. But normalization is as harsh and fierce in this young age group as it is in adolescence, and deviations automatically assume a sense of perversion. It’s a different kind of reaction than the self-conscious whispering that generates from kids collectively handling puberty. It scares me that I remember that gender-normative pressure so clearly, yet I don’t understand exactly where it came from, why it was so fundamentally accepted, and why our teachers seemed to have no awareness of it.

Now that I’ve rambled through this story and away from the quote that originally spurred it, I’ll just say that as a figure Mike had a lot in common with Michael Jackson, even if it was within a tiny microcosmic setting. I felt the same sense of distrust towards the way the world treated Michael Jackson in his last years as I did towards the way my elementary school treated Mike. But I know enough now to admire him and to be totally thankful that if the true, evil nature of group mentality had to be revealed, I also got to see how a creative individualist could defang it by being better and bolder than anyone else.

This is quickly becoming one of my favorite videos of the past few months, as well as one of my favorite songs. It was directed by Melina Matsoukas, who apparently can’t miss lately— she directed the videos for Solange’s excellent “Losing You," Rihanna’s "We Found Love,” and Beyonce’s cafeteria dance-along “Move Your Body,” (she’s also developed a playful aesthetic in classics like “Upgrade U”/”Why Don’t You Love Me,” Lily Allen’s “Not Fair,” and Rihanna’s “Rude Boy" that incorporates bemused images of wealth and class in its colorful kitschiness.) Matsoukas has proven to be not only an extremely capable director of big personalities, but also someone who’s aware of how visual tastes change collectively.
She’s a good match for Christina Aguilera, an artist who’s undergone several image changes since the beginning of her career and was due for some kind of statement. “Your Body” is a tribute to nameless, loveless sex cranked up to its most rewarding potential. Aguilera hasn’t come out with a single this aggressive since “Dirrty,” but while that song was belligerent it was also a little self-conscious, and “Your Body” is thankfully free of any coquetry. Max Martin, who also penned many of the tracks for Britney Spears’ recent comeback, has created an overblown (in a good way) track with beautiful production, and Aguilera’s powerful voice gives a weight to this sound that even Katy Perry hasn’t achieved. The whole thing adds up to what might simply be raunch-pop in less skillful hands, but here becomes a really direct expression of self-love—even more evident in Matsoukas/Aguilera’s embracing of her now ample curves in skintight, eye-popping colors.
But, interestingly, the internet on the whole seems to be finding this video to be very funny, and I don’t agree. Sure, there’s humor in the trailer-park-vixen-turned-serial-killer concept, but to me it’s more arch than actually laugh-out-loud ridiculous. Theodor Adorno wrote something about how kitsch is a parody of the catharsis that comes from high art, and the explosions of blue paint and pink glitter that stand in for blood and guts here are a pretty clever turn on that idea. Maybe there’s something more to Christina’s defiant everywoman-ness than hard work and sex positivity. She’s been through a lot and she still has no problem talking up even the points in her career that are generally seen as low ones (i.e. Bionic.) She’s never had any issues with her body, generally stating her love for any change it’s undergone in a very public way. Aguilera has a very deliberate strategy of not letting herself be misunderstood.
And this is someone who’s making good on the promise of an entire career flirting with the boundaries of good taste in both a clean/dirty sense and an inspired/pandering sense (she was as committed to selling the heartfelt “Beautiful” as she is to judging on The Voice.) Underneath everything, Aguilera is nothing if not a professional. So this video has none of the winking “I’m in on the joke too” ploys that Spears has been forced to use in the past couple of years. To me, delighting in how “ridiculous” this video looks is just a way to avoid giving credit to someone who’s creating mainstream art in an effective and intelligent way. Possibly, we’re just suspicious because this strikes such a perfect tone for her, it seems like it must be the result of some kind of fakery.
But I really believe in Christina Aguilera. I’m hoping that her new album will turn out to be as good as this song, but even if it doesn’t, there will still be that amazing bridge: “I think you already know my name.” It’s a line that laughs off the idea of mistakes, either past or future. When you know exactly who you are, just being it is enough to carry you forward.

This is quickly becoming one of my favorite videos of the past few months, as well as one of my favorite songs. It was directed by Melina Matsoukas, who apparently can’t miss lately— she directed the videos for Solange’s excellent “Losing You," Rihanna’s "We Found Love,” and Beyonce’s cafeteria dance-along “Move Your Body,” (she’s also developed a playful aesthetic in classics like “Upgrade U”/”Why Don’t You Love Me,” Lily Allen’s “Not Fair,” and Rihanna’s “Rude Boy" that incorporates bemused images of wealth and class in its colorful kitschiness.) Matsoukas has proven to be not only an extremely capable director of big personalities, but also someone who’s aware of how visual tastes change collectively.

She’s a good match for Christina Aguilera, an artist who’s undergone several image changes since the beginning of her career and was due for some kind of statement. “Your Body” is a tribute to nameless, loveless sex cranked up to its most rewarding potential. Aguilera hasn’t come out with a single this aggressive since “Dirrty,” but while that song was belligerent it was also a little self-conscious, and “Your Body” is thankfully free of any coquetry. Max Martin, who also penned many of the tracks for Britney Spears’ recent comeback, has created an overblown (in a good way) track with beautiful production, and Aguilera’s powerful voice gives a weight to this sound that even Katy Perry hasn’t achieved. The whole thing adds up to what might simply be raunch-pop in less skillful hands, but here becomes a really direct expression of self-love—even more evident in Matsoukas/Aguilera’s embracing of her now ample curves in skintight, eye-popping colors.

But, interestingly, the internet on the whole seems to be finding this video to be very funny, and I don’t agree. Sure, there’s humor in the trailer-park-vixen-turned-serial-killer concept, but to me it’s more arch than actually laugh-out-loud ridiculous. Theodor Adorno wrote something about how kitsch is a parody of the catharsis that comes from high art, and the explosions of blue paint and pink glitter that stand in for blood and guts here are a pretty clever turn on that idea. Maybe there’s something more to Christina’s defiant everywoman-ness than hard work and sex positivity. She’s been through a lot and she still has no problem talking up even the points in her career that are generally seen as low ones (i.e. Bionic.) She’s never had any issues with her body, generally stating her love for any change it’s undergone in a very public way. Aguilera has a very deliberate strategy of not letting herself be misunderstood.

And this is someone who’s making good on the promise of an entire career flirting with the boundaries of good taste in both a clean/dirty sense and an inspired/pandering sense (she was as committed to selling the heartfelt “Beautiful” as she is to judging on The Voice.) Underneath everything, Aguilera is nothing if not a professional. So this video has none of the winking “I’m in on the joke too” ploys that Spears has been forced to use in the past couple of years. To me, delighting in how “ridiculous” this video looks is just a way to avoid giving credit to someone who’s creating mainstream art in an effective and intelligent way. Possibly, we’re just suspicious because this strikes such a perfect tone for her, it seems like it must be the result of some kind of fakery.

But I really believe in Christina Aguilera. I’m hoping that her new album will turn out to be as good as this song, but even if it doesn’t, there will still be that amazing bridge: “I think you already know my name.” It’s a line that laughs off the idea of mistakes, either past or future. When you know exactly who you are, just being it is enough to carry you forward.

Flying Lotus, Until the Quiet Comes

I don’t remember where I read it, but apparently Steve Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, was recently reading a book by Michael Talbot. It makes perfect sense, since Talbot’s work posited a connection between mysticism and the basic elements of the universe. Ellison has cultivated a similar approach since he started making music, and Until the Quiet Comes, which was released on October 1st, shows that his ideas have become less bombastic as they’ve gotten more refined. A recurring question has been whether the new material is a large departure from his previous work, particularly in relation to 2010’s groundbreaking Cosmogramma. In some ways, it sounds vastly different, and in some it sounds like it’s circling back to earlier efforts. But more than anything, it sounds like the feeling you get from turning the volume down and putting your ear very, very close to the speaker.

Considering the articulate nature of his albums, a visual catalogue is sort of besides the point. But the often druggy imagery of his album covers are available as the short version of Ellison’s shifting sense of scale. 1983’s nebula was neatly recalled/repurposed by Los Angeles’ close-up of melted metal veins, and now it’s morphed into UTQC's body in a free-floating costume, shot by experienced underwater photographer Dan Kitchens. That last image is redolent of a shift in approach that, while still founded on texture, recognizes how sound can be detailed without being sharp, and relatable without being overly specific.

I have a great deal of respect for this careful intimacy. Cosmogramma was like a finely detailed Nintendo picaresque, with its protagonist reeling through a microcosmos of splashy color and unclear borders. Wildly diverse compositions asserted themselves as supporting characters that each toted their own history. And everything was densely packed with sounds, so that even a potential lull like “MmmHmm” layered shuffling and whooping thickly over Thundercat’s bass scaffolding. Tracks like “Table Tennis” made use of novelty sound bites, in that case a smattering of ping-pong sounds, that outlined explicit intentions for the listener. The luminescent “Galaxy in Janaki,” the album’s ecstatic final track, looked upward and outward, like there was no telling where Ellison might go next. So maybe it’s surprising that he ended up returning to a real, human-sized Los Angeles, but it’s a testament to his skill that the transition sounds natural.

There are several familiar collaborators along for the ride (Erykah Badu, Thom Yorke, and Thundercat, who must qualify as Ellison’s spirit animal at this point.) Laura Darlington has been around longer than anyone, since first appearing on 1983’s waltzing “Unexpected Delight.” With her soothing choirgirl intonation (she sounds something like a diffused Alison Statton) she has been instrumental in shaping the unassuming tone of FlyLo’s oeuvre. She reappears here on the appropriately named “Phantasm,” a track that utilizes a characteristic rippling effect but replaces driving beats with impressionistic drabs of percussion. “All that we feel is virtually real,” Darlington’s voice imparts, a statement reflected in the hypnotic short film by Kahlil Joseph that predated the album’s release.

Many of Flying Lotus’ compositions feel like they are reaching back into a mystical past while subtle threads continue to tie them to the current zeitgest. “Getting There,  (feat. Niki Randa,)” with its subtle invocation of Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You,” unfolds from a foundation of soul and jazz traditions and promises (“getting there, getting there”) a leisurely journey through its creator’s musical consciousness. After less than two minutes, it segues neatly into the woodpecker beat that pushes “Until the Colours Come,” (itself a burbling soundscape that hints at Ellison’s possible influence on something like Frank Ocean’s “Pyramids.”*) If you listen closely, you can hear Ellison echoing himself: the same way “Parisian Goldfish” prefigured “Computer Face/Pure Being,” “Recoiled” and “Do the Astral Plane” prefigured the bouncing “The Nightcaller”. Similarly, themes from the beginning of the album ripple outward through the rest of it.“ Sultan’s Request”/”Putty Boy Strut” are a one-two punch that are most in tune with what’s currently happening in Hip Hop and Dance music, but even those have a fine complexity that stamp them unmistakably as totems in Ellison’s LA rather than references to the outside.

If Ellison has been something of a music-scene lurker in the past, tuned in but not necessarily directly involved, it’s because he’s so focused on crafting his own take on things. His hard work has reaped an entire arsenal of precise textures and arrangements that can be re-purposed, repackaged, and still evoke a strong sense of his unique character (Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear/ Department of Eagles is another contemporary musician who possesses this backlog of musical signatures.) Until the Quiet Comes is a work of alchemy that comes from years of tightly observed experimentation and a tireless sense of wonder at the possibilities of coaxing sound elements into cooperation with one another.

Mixed in with all of the colorful synapse-firing are drawn-out moments of intimacy. It’s one more way that the new album differs from Cosmogramma, which was littered with interstitial pieces of orchestration that stretched it into a sweeping suite with classical undertones. Instead, on UTQC we get a dense concoction with most tracks receiving equal weight. Its shifts in tone are committed gestures: it’s easy to list pleasurably along to the album’s light apex, “DMT,” but also easy to overlook that its certainty is rooted in real wisdom. You may find yourself humming the simplistic refrain but the whole album is weighted by the song’s less obvious closing line, “I belong where I’m at.”

Unlike Cosmogramma, this album doesn’t fight against every musical structure that tries to contain it. A track like “All the Secrets” builds slowly, flickers at the top, and comes back down in a way that accurately mirrors a mature sense of enjoyment. But the notion of this sound being more mature is a limited one—the idea that something needs to be shiny and brash to tap into a childlike sense of wonder is an adult projection. When you’re a kid, everything feels like an overwhelming moment, from struggling to reach something on the kitchen counter to concentrating on a single chord change in a song on the radio that you don’t even know how to find again. For many people, childhood is the only time when the colossal magnitude of the universe syncs up with the universe of your particular creation, when you have utter faith in your own perspective. Steve Ellison knows how to return to that place and, even more impressively, has managed to reconstruct his dream so that we can experience it with him.



*Any affinity between those two goes both ways, as evidenced by Ellison’s remix of Ocean’s “Thinking About You,” which pitched up/intensified the track, while also echoing Ocean’s original release of the song by being posted hastily in an “unfinished” version and then taken down just as fast.