cartwheels into your heart

Thursday, June 19, 2003

I saw Night of the Hunter this week. This may be an absurd comparison (it no longer sits with me as well as it did the other day), but the film initially reminded me of Terrence Malick’s films from the 1970’s:

1. Similarities between Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) and Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen in Badlands): Both are charismatic, cocksure, but ultimately lonely criminals in the 1950’s who ingratiate themselves to others through the sheer popularity of their personae: Powell as a righteous preacher and Kit as a James Dean figure. Most interestingly, neither character is presented psychologically; there is no attempt to fill out their back-stories or delve into their motivations. I find this particularly notable in the 1955 Night of the Hunter, since even Hitchcock, five years later, felt it necessary to explain away Norman Bates at the end of Psycho. We leave Hunter still asking, "Is he truly deranged, or is it all an elaborate act? Or both?"

2. Children as figures of audience identification: Malick’s 1970’s films are both narrated by adolescents – Sissy Spacek in Badlands and Linda Manz in Days of Heaven – and so we see the world principally through their eyes. In Night of the Hunter, we empathize most strongly with nine-year-old John Harper (Billy Chapin), as he’s the only one who’s consistently suspicious of the villainous Powell. The use of children has a similar effect, I think, of flattening the film’s perspective. The kids aren’t wise or confident enough to provide insight – Holly’s narration in Badlands is coolly objective; John is mostly silent (even in the company of his friendly uncle) and fairly single-minded in his stubbornness toward Powell (he just wants to keep a promise to his father). And so if these are the only characters with whom we can affiliate ourselves, there’s something unsettling about the strangeness or complexity of the events simply not being remarked upon.

3. Nature imagery: As soon as John and Pearl run away, Night of the Hunter becomes littered with close-ups of animals – frogs, owls, and rabbits along the river banks; cows in a barn where the children take shelter. Malick similarly lingers on shots of animals throughout Badlands and Days of Heaven. And yet in this case, the cinematic function clearly differs. For Malick, the wealth of attention paid to grasshoppers, grazing deer, etc., in Heaven is all in the name of naturalism, both literally and figuratively. That is, he minimizes the structured human drama (the love triangle) in favor of the bigger, transcendental, natural world outside (those huge Midwestern skies). But Night of the Hunter operates in a much more theatrical, expressionist style. There is nothing outside the world of the narrative: the animals, like the sky full of stars, seem to exist solely to watch over the children. Whereas Malick uses nature to direct our attention away from the plot, Charles Laughton uses it to deepen the plot’s significance. Here, it’s part of the set design.

Thursday, June 12, 2003

I’ve been writing about music a lot lately, so I wanted to reprint this e-mail I wrote BT back in March about All the Real Girls, one of my favorite films of 2003 so far:

"On one hand, I found All the Real Girls to be somewhat uneven. The older characters -- Leland and Elvira -- seem underdeveloped, more like sketches. And though I appreciate Green's impulse toward a loose, documentary style of filmmaking, I think his films could benefit from more judicious editing. There's an early scene with Feng-Shui on Leland's shoulders as they walk silently through a field -- the cut to the scene is oddly abrupt, and the camera lingers on them for way too long. These moments add up.

On the other hand, the movie had a profound impact on me, like almost nothing else I've seen. I dwelled on it all last week, writing about it several times in my journal, and coming to new understandings each time. And I saw it again the other day. I'm still thinking about it.

I think it affected me so strongly because it worked on two levels. As a movie fan, I absolutely love anything that's naturalistic and episodic. I smiled at scenes like the conversation between Noel and Bust-Ass about food expanding in the stomach -- it's such a goofy dialogue, but so right on with its small-talk awkwardness. And, as Green says, moments like these are nothing that a "witty screenwriter" could've come up with, or else it'd feel contrived. (He says this, in NewCity, about Noel whispering "hellohellohello" in Paul's ear -- Zooey did it spontaneously.)

So I can champion the film in a "more movies like this, please!" way. But it also emotionally devastated me, which I think has to do with the psychological complexity of the characters. You can see how genuinely Paul and Noel love each other, how well they get along -- but they are in totally different places in their lives, and they can't understand how significantly that affects their relationship. The tragedy of their story is that they are the "best boy and girl for each other" at that moment, and that they do still have feelings for each other, despite everything that happens.

Where these two levels come together is in remarkable scenes like the motel room -- from the tension-diffusing pillow fight to Noel's soul-baring story about her scar. If that's not among the most remarkable performances I've seen from an actress, I don't know what is -- in ten minutes, she goes from nervousness (about being there) to playfulness (the pillow fight) to pain (the scar story) and then joyful love (at being able to share it with Paul). She cries and laughs at the same time. She expresses volumes with just the way her mouth moves. She says lines like, "Tip doesn't even know about this" in an off-handed way, as if she just thought to bring it up.

Now, I'll admit to finding parts of the film uniquely resonant because a) their relationship bears similarities to relationships I've had, and so certain scenes were more poignant than they otherwise might be, and b) Noel is totally my kinda gal (particularly since Zooey is so beautiful), and so I felt like I loved her, too. In other words, there's surely a subjective component to my feelings about the movie. Just so you know. But I can defend it all, too.

As for the [meaning of the] title, I think I've cheated by having read almost every single interview or article about David Gordon Green available online in the last week. Although I guess the only comment I found from Green himself was that it originated as the title of a song that a friend of his wrote -- he didn't say any more than that. The suggestion I actually like best -- I don't remember where I read it -- is that it's a dedication: (To) All the Real Girls. Especially when you consider that Green and Schneider co-wrote this film, inspired by their own past relationships and aiming to present a "real" image of young love for once. To all the real girls who inspired this movie."

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Based strictly on its packaging, Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief is a much more logocentric album than its two predecessors. (I haven’t seen the packaging for anything before Kid A.) Not only are the lyrics printed inside, but the artwork is a painted map of Manhattan covered, magnetic-poetry style, in "evocative" words and phrases (many of which surface in the lyrics).

I do like that this use of words seems to point up the chaos and indeterminacy of language: the map is a jumble; all of the songs have alternate titles. I especially like the double-meaning of "There There" (the record’s first single and possibly best song), which I’d never before considered. On one hand, it’s a phrase spoken to sooth someone; on the other hand, when it shows up on the map, as a "place," it’s hard not to think of the famous Gertrude Stein quote about Oakland. In the first case, the words "there there" are nonsensical; in the second, they’re paradoxical. Ah, language.

And yet I don’t like how Radiohead has invited this attention to words and politics. (What the words on the map evoke, mostly, are things like globalization and post-9/11 attitudes.) Because it’s precisely this kind of thing that seduces critics into praising bands as Important Artists without having to reflect much on the actual experience of listening to them.

Radiohead’s music is surely interesting enough to be taken on its own terms, whether it’s to explore their usage of pivot tones or even to demonstrate that their sound is not as progressive as contemporary hip-hop. For what it’s worth, I disagree with Sasha Frere-Jones’ claim that there’s "little … trace of punk, hip-hop, or beat-oriented club music" in Radiohead’s sound (In "Where I End and You Begin," from Hail to the Thief, I hear both Depeche Mode and Gang of Four.) But I admire his desire to unpack "what people like when they like Radiohead," since for many I think it does have to do with silly ideas about Thom Yorke’s tortured genius persona, the band’s mystical politics (borrowed from Adbusters), and the very fact of their Warp influence (rather than how it’s put into practice).

In short, there’s a place for the kind of analysis I performed in those first two paragraphs – but sometimes it seems too easy (words being naturally easier to write about than music), and the temptation to go that route is often at the expense of interesting phenomenological criticism.

Thursday, June 05, 2003

The Pinefox responds to my post from 5/30 (scroll down). Even though I'm currently reading Simon Frith's interesting Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, I'm no longer sure I want to write about this whole topic. At least not now.

My Top 5 Musical Moments (May 2003):

1. High as a kite at a party, and 2pac’s "California Love" came on the stereo. The only context I’d ever heard this song was in a remix of Beck’s "Where It’s At," and I didn’t even know where the sample came from. (I desperately need to school myself on post-1993 hip-hop and dance.) Dancing wildly to the original song, I was amazed at how prominent that vocoder is – it’s the whole chorus. I shouted, "I love it! How come more people don’t use the vocoder?!" And then I did the robot, and then some dandy swagger, and then just jumped up and down to the endless beats.

2. In Michigan, on a sunny, windy afternoon, Matt introduced me to Life Without Buildings. "Wait, why did you think I would like it again?" I said. "It’s sorta like Pavement, and it’s sorta like the Sugarcubes, and…" Oh yeah! The guitars get on a frenetic groove, driving but swerving and falling down stairs, forming sevenths, like Sleater-Kinney at their best ("Get Up"). And Sue Tompkins shouts girl-like, repetitious, like a sugar rush. I was air-drumming immediately and begging others to hear. This was post-punk but fun!

3. Adrian Crowley at the Empty Bottle, May 17: In between two women, a skinny rock-chick bass player and a plain, long-haired cellist, this Irishman picked up his electric guitar and just strummed and sang. I don’t always know when simple repetition will work for me: last night, a Smog song I wanted to like sounded tedious. But I think it has to do with tension: what I loved about Crowley was the way those basic chords, played fast and amplified, surrounded by low end, became a hypnotic blur that fell in and out of noise.

4. "Magic Stick," Lil’ Kim feat. 50 Cent. My favorite new radio single. The best part is the unexpected melody of that second descending "ma-a-gic (uh-huh, uh-huh)" in the chorus. Until that point, there’s only four notes, highlighted by a single minor triad: "I can hit once / I can hit twice" ascends the chord; "magic stick" and "baddest chick" descend it. But the second "ma-a-gic" pivots on the middle note and drops down to form a major triad – and with such sparse instrumentation, it’s unsettling: 50 Cent as a zombie. What? What?

5. The North Atlantic at the Prodigal Son, May 31: The show was disappointing insofar as they only played five songs (the bar’s fault), and I still haven’t cottoned to their new, more hardcore sound. But I was pleased because a) those boys move around on stage like nobody else (Jason R. seeming to straddle his bass, Jason H. in an absolute frenzy); b) Jason H. wants to revive Pico de Ohio (our ambient-folk duo) when he moves to Chicago; and c) we all went back to Mark’s place after the show and listened to the amazing Hail to the Thief bootleg. And so I felt happy about the future of music.