The Baggage that We Bring to Art

On my last post I wrote about Lou Reed and Metallica’s Lulu.  It was an album savaged by critics.  A lot of my favorite pieces of art have been critically condemned only to find reevaluation years later.  Terry Gilliam has a movie called Tideland that knocked me out when I saw it.  It was one of the only times I have walked out of a theater thinking that I had just seen something completely new.  I was excited, ecstatic even, only to read reviews later that tore the movie to shreds.  This did nothing to alter my view of the film, I was only sad to learn that the film wouldn’t find a larger audience.  I also felt bad that so many people had missed out on such a fantastic film.

This is not standard review, nor do I want to spend time relaying the entire plot.  If you want to learn more about the movie here is the Wikipedia page.

One of the things interesting about the film is that it’s protagonist is a little girl and the movie is filmed with her perspective in mind.  The little girl undergoes many trials including her dad dying of a heroin overdose in their rural farmhouse in Texas.  If you view the film through the eyes of an adult, there are many uncomfortable moments in the film.  There is a kiss scene where the girl kisses, innocently, her friend who is a boy that is mentally handicapped.  Because we are adults, and adults are sexual beings, viewers may be inclined to view this scene with a sense of horror.  But if you view the scene through the eyes of its protagonist, it is just an innocent kiss between friends.  As with many Gilliam films, a theme running through the movie is how our imaginations allow us to survive the realities of the world, which are often less than ideal.  Children, out of all ages, possess the strongest imaginations.  Therefore, it only makes sense that in many ways children are more resilient than adults.

Although knowledge can, at many times, increase our appreciation for art, as we learn to understand the language of certain art forms, it can occasionally blind us to its true meaning.  What we bring along with us, our psychological intellectual background, is important.   This is often why you may see musicians, painters, filmmakers, appreciating different things than the general public.  They usually are steeped in the knowledge of their particular field.  They might have a better idea of when someone is breaking from convention to reach new ground.  You don’t have to be an artist.  It’s not some kind of secret club, just generally if you are making something you are interested enough to immerse yourself in it.  A library card and a curious mind are all one needs to learn the language of any given medium.

However, outside of the language of a medium, there is also what we bring to a piece of art from our personal background.  How we view the world influences how we view the themes of a piece of art.  What I love about this movie is that Gilliam has created something that asks us to shake off our personal and cultural biases.  He is asking us to be children again, to view the world with the same sense of wonder that they do.  It’s a beautiful place if you can get into that headspace.

No one states this better than Gilliam himself in the introduction to the movie, up above.  This introduction also played in the theater when I saw the film.  Although sometimes overstating your purpose can be harmful, given the nature of this film, I really felt that it is effective.  He is trying to get the viewers in that headspace of a child before the film begins, which is essential to a proper interpretation of the film.  I remember thinking, upon seeing this introduction two things:

“Gilliam is throwing down the fucking gauntlet”, and “I’m in.”


Love & Mercy Review

Love and Mercy Posters

I finally got around to seeing Love & Mercy, the movie about Brian Wilson.  I had every reason to believe that I might not like it, but I found it to be excellent.  I am not a fan of biography movies in general, as they often follow a predictable formula.  Also, I have been a long time Brian Wilson and Beach Boys fan.  I have watched several documentaries about Wilson and I have read the biography Heroes and Villains.  (The Beach Boys’ documentary Endless Harmony is a must-see film for anyone that is even slightly interested in the band or pop music in general.)  Even if the film was able to shake the conventions of a typical biography, I was afraid it would be a cliff notes version of the Brian Wilson story, or that it would not be able to present the music in a way that was compelling.

However, by focusing mainly on two periods of Wilson’s life, and hopping between them, the movie doesn’t fall into the usual pitfalls of the genre.  If you have ever taken a history class, you know that the more specific the focus, the more interesting the class usually is.  This is because it allows one to dive into the interesting details of a period, instead of just dealing with an ever changing list of names and dates.  Although there are no rules, I think the same usually applies to movies that deal with someone’s life.  By narrowing the focus, the moments are allowed more room to breath, more small details enter, providing the scenes with a greater sense of realism.

Also, credit must be given to director Bill Pohlad.  There is a real sense that the movie is being guided by someone that really understands the music.  The music not only sounds great, but the studio performances are filmed with an immediacy and realism that not only gives one a sense of the magic involved, which is apparent to anyone listening to the final product, but also the hard work and craft that it took to get those recordings.  This movie is filmed in the style of cinema verite in many of the scenes, a style that can can go either way as far as I’m concerned, but here it really works.  It gives one a sense of sitting in on the sessions.  There is one scene particularly I remember when the camera is filming from around a corner, the shot partly obscured, but it gives one the sense they are in the room watching events unfold.  Great attention seems to be paid to detail in this film, which helps to create a fully realized world.

The sound design of the film is exceptional as well.  This not only clearly helps the music, but is also essential to understanding the growing mental health problems that Wilson faces.  He is someone that suffered from audio hallucinations.  Whether or not these hallucinations sounded exactly like that, they are created in a way that gives the viewer a sense of the dread that they created.

I think it was Quentin Tarantino that said that biography movies only existed to win actors awards.  Usually the performances are not the downfall of the genre.  But it should be noted that both John Cusack and Paul Dano are excellent as Wilson.  Even if Cusack doesn’t look exactly like Wilson, he does a great job at capturing his mannerisms and rendering greatly the combination of Wilson’s inner turmoil and innocence.  Dano, who plays the younger Wilson, is excellent as usual.  All of the supporting characters are greatly cast as well.

Wilson is one of the few people in modern music that can easily and rightly be called a genius.  This movie does a great job at showing the uninitiated why that is the case, and it also creates a vivid enough portrait of the times that someone who is already a fan should be captivated.

If you are interested in Wilson there are a bunch of great documentaries about him.  I would again highly recommend the documentary Endless Harmony, which is an thorough and deeply engaging overview of The Beach Boys.  The documentary that came out when Wilson’s version of SMiLE was finally released is also really good.  If you are interested in the players that played on The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, there is a really great documentary about the musicians on Netflix right now called The Wrecking Crew.  (The Wrecking Crew were a group of musicians that played not only on Pet Sounds, but on more hit records than you would believe.  It is a testament to Wilson that these players, as seen both in Love & Mercy and the documentary about them, all consider Wilson to be the greatest genius of that period.)


As a side note, I am always interested in why this particular time period created so much great music.  There are all kinds of economic, technological, and cultural reasons.  The market at that time provided someone like Brian Wilson, who was clearly a genius but also suffered from mental health issues, a great deal of money to realize his vision.  I have a slightly older friend that was in the music and now film industry.  We had an interesting conversation one night where he talked about how, when he was younger, it was mainly the outcasts of society that were in the music industry.  However, with the decline of revenue in the music industry, and the increased importance of social media, success is often more based on how many people a musician can get to support them early on.  Someone that is more popular and more socially adept at networking has a leg up in ways that are magnified by current social conditions.  Certainly networking and popularity were always part of the game, but I do think it is a valid point.  Everyone knows that the money is no longer what it was in the music industry.  However, would someone like Wilson thrive now, when social media and business sense plays such an increased roll in success?  (And I don’t mean in any way to paint Wilson as being completely naive.  He is a complex figure that was very dynamic personality during certain periods of his career.)  To end this, I don’t have any definitive answer.  I just think it is worth thinking about how the values of our society, and who we value and why we value them, influences the kind of culture that we end up with.


‘Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine’ Review

Steve Jobs Poster

The new Alex Gibney documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, is a must see movie.  It’s not only excellent at giving context to the life of Steve Jobs, for showing the complex man behind the public persona, but it also asks questions of the viewer, of our society.

The movie begins with scenes that took place just after his death.  It shows people putting flowers in front of Apple stores and people crying on the internet.  The movies asks the question why were so many people so moved when Jobs died?  It is the questions that the movie attempts to answer throughout its running course, giving us a look at the real Jobs, while reflecting upon the values of our culture.

The movie then goes back to the beginning of his life.  It traces both the ups and downs of his life with interviews of the people that knew him and with excellent footage from different time periods.  The film keeps expanding the canvass to show us how the Jobs was far more complex than most people knew.  Why did he treat his coworkers so harshly?  Why did he not seem to care about working conditions in Apple’s Chinese factories?  Why did Jobs not believe in philanthropy?

However, this movie is no simple biography or expose.  Gibney is too talented a filmmaker to do that.  While the movie never does let Jobs off the hook, while it paints an extremely dark portrait of him, you never doubt that he was brilliant and unique figure, even if what you realize he was brilliant at changes by the end of the film.  While the movie condemns some of the behavior we are viewing, it’s judgment isn’t voyeuristic;  The culture that the audience is a part of is questioned as well.  Also, while the movie does tell the story of his life, it never feels like a simple point A to point B story.  It is well crafted in the way it tells its story, mirroring the complexity of its subject.

Whether or not you care about Jobs, and I am someone that never really did emotionally one way or the other while he was alive, I think this movie has a lot to offer.  Although Jobs had a lot of help along the way, help that he often did not give the credit they deserved, and although he was definitely someone that benefited from being in the right time and place, there is no doubt that Jobs helped to create the world that we live in.  (I am typing this on a Mac and I take my iPod everywhere.)  But what are the values of this world?  Do the products that Jobs helped sell make our world better or worse?  (The movie does a great job of showing  how technology both helps us communicate and isolates us at the same time.)  What does it say about our culture that someone like Jobs is beloved by so many?  Questions, so many questions.  While never losing sight of its subject, I think the movie does a fantastic job of casting a wider net, of giving us a better look at these strange and modern times.


Who Was the Real Steve Jobs?

Alex Gibney and Peter Elkind Discuss Steve Jobs

A must read over at Salon.  Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, and writer Peter Elkind, The Smartest Guys in the Room, talk about Steve Jobs and their new documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.  Jobs was someone that wanted to change the world through technology, but wasn’t concerned with the ethics of how he got there.  He didn’t care about low wages at Apple’s factories in China, about Apple’s environmental impact, or about philanthropy in general.  He also used elements of the counter-culture to his advantage, without really taking in the deeper meaning of a lot of it.  Jobs asked us to “Think Different”, yet buy the same stuff.  Yet, here I am typing on an Apple computer, I travel everywhere with my iPod, and there is a good chance you own an Apple product as well.  They view Jobs as a complex person whose rougher qualities were often ignored, especially in the time period after his death.  Do we know the real Jobs and would our society have looked upon him as fondly if we did?

More Posts On Alex Gibney Include: Reflections On Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Reflections On “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”

I finally got around to watching Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, the HBO documentary about Scientology.  It was everything everyone said it was.  The truth really is stranger than fiction.  I’m not going to do a full review, there have been plenty of others, and the film is still too new in my head to give it any kind of overall analysis.  There are just a few quick points and questions I wanted to address:

  1.  Watching the movie you see an alternative reality, where people believe things that can only be described as batshit insane.  Yet, many of these people are highly functioning members of society.  What widely held beliefs do we hold in our society that appear absolutely ridiculous to those viewing us from afar?  I don’t mean ones that differ from other societies, there are plenty of those, but ones that are provably false, yet a great deal of Americans put faith in them.
  2. Many of the people interviewed, the high ranking former Scientologists, that now have retired from the church, look back upon their former life with disbelief.  If we were to be removed from our current station in life are there things that we would view as absurd?
  3. When something looks and feels like a propagandist rally, it probably is.  There are creepy spectacles where the leader of the modern church, David Miscavige, and Tom Cruise speak to a stadium full of people in tuxedos and ball gowns.  Fireworks go off, people wave flags, inspirational videos are shown.  It looks like a megachurch combined with a political party convention combined with a sports rally.  All of these things are things in which every day America people have to suspend disbelief to participate in.  Sure, a sports rally is largely harmless, but you are essentially pretending that the action on the field somehow matters in your life, which unless you have money on the game, it doesn’t.  I think the other two examples are self-explanatory.

My point is that the church of Scientology is ridiculously absurd.  But at the same time, it is just an exaggerated version of many of the things that inhabit everyday life.  In fact when compared to some of the televangelists that John Oliver recently spoofed, it really isn’t any more absurd.  People in this documentary do horrible things to other people in the name of belief.  So many of the ills of mankind are based on a belief of some kind, but because they are more accepted, are not recognized as absurd.  The prison of belief.  One of the things that makes the documentary so powerful is that it is explicitly about Scientology, but it is also implicitly about the way that people get carried away by belief.  I would bet that even those of us that think we have a realistic view of the world have some pretty ridiculous notions if we look hard enough.  Hopefully this documentary will make people look at their own lives and not just the lives of the freaks on view.  That being said, the things Scientologists believe in are really, really, really fucking insane!

A Great Survival Story

I am in San Antonio waiting to soundcheck.   I was just talking to Keith about survival stories, as he is now reading In the Heart of the Sea, which tells the true story of the whaleship Essex, that was sunk by a sperm whale and is the inspiration for Moby Dick.

While talking about that story, I remembered one of my favorite documentaries, which is also a tale of survival.  It is Little Deter Needs to Fly, directed by Werner Herzog.   Deter Dengler, the Deter of the title, is a German American pilot during the Vietnam war.  He is shot down early in the war and not only escapes a prison camp, but also must survive in enemy territory and the jungle itself once he escapes.  Dengler is in the film and is a one of a kind character that you can’t help but like.  In fact Herzog,  who is not know for his sentimentalism,  was so enamored by him that he went on to direct a feature film, Rescue Dawn, starring Christian Bale.   While the dramatized version is excellent, it is really the documentary and the time spent with the real Deter that will leave a lasting impression.   If you can find either one they are worth seeing.  The documentary itself is really worth taking the trouble to dig for.

Music as Visual Art

Hammer Dracula

Lately my musical listening has drifted to bands that would be considered by many to be heavy, loud, by some to even be called discordant or non-melodic.  These would be some of the hardcore, punk, and heavy metal bands that I love, many since I was a kid.  Fugazi, Anthrax, Black Flag, The Misfits and many others have been on constant rotation through my headphones.  (These bands are all wildly different, but share crashing drums and loud guitars.)

I know there are many people that love a lot of the same music that I do that have no time for this kind of stuff.  But again I want to try and get you to view music the same way that I do, as something more akin to film or painting or any other kind of visual art.  There aren’t many people that have time for comedies, but rule out horror films completely.  There aren’t many people that like oil paintings, but who don’t have the time of day for sculptures.

There are good and bad oil paintings, sculptures, horror films, and comedies.  There are good and bad recordings in any genre, but I cannot think of any genre, in the most basic sense, that is all good or bad.  Much like there are different ways of putting together colors or images, there is different ways of putting together sound.  Sound is a visual thing.  My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless is like an ever shifting psychedelic kaleidoscope, as colors swirl and melt into each other.  Whenever I hear Marianne Faithfull’s version of Trouble in Mind I think of Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks.

Meanwhile different kinds of heavy metal, punk, and hardcore sound like other films or artwork.  The Misfits, sonically and by design, remind me of something like the old Hammer Horror Films.  Some heavy metal, though of course this genre, like any, can be ridiculously varied, reminds me of the kind of imagery associated with German paintings that came out of World War I.

Even if a certain kind of music don’t bring up specific visual associations, different kinds of music are awash in different colors.  Even if you don’t see music as being “colorful” most people would know that certain kinds of music sound better at day or night, on a beach or in a city.

Try to get past your immediate emotional reaction to any piece of music and think about the image that would go with it.  The only kind of music that I don’t like is music that only communicates, with terms that Werner Herzog would use to describe bad filmmaking, “vanilla emotions” or the, “truth of accountants.”  You just might find whole new worlds opening up.

More Posts On This Subject Include: Music as Paintings

More Posts On Music Include: Heart of the Congos and Great Music Criticism

More Posts On Hardcore Music Include:  Rites of Spring and the Political Without Politics

The Aviator – A Review and Reflection

The other night I watched Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator for the first time since seeing it in theaters in 2004.  I was struck by how good it was, much better than I remember it being when I originally saw it.  This is Scorsese’s account of the life of Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio).

I seem to remember it mostly for its first half hour, of when it gives a kind of synopsis treatment of early Hollywood.  It seems the work of a lesser filmmaker, tying to recreate a historical moment, without providing us any kind of insight into the actual moment.  It looks good, but it is emotionally empty.  The first section of the film almost plays more like a music video than a fully realized film with strong characters.

However, once Scorsese really starts showing us the struggle behind Hughes’s outward can-do facade, the movie really starts to become interesting.  You start realizing that the same things that allow Hughes to succeed are the same things that will eventually destroy him.  Hughes struggles with an extreme case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.  This personality trait drives him to be a perfectionist in the world of aviation and film, cause him to later be a shut-in that can no longer function in any kind of normal capacity.

That the film doesn’t adhere to the normal biographical film structure is a huge plus.  Scorsese is too smart for this.  The final shot, which leaves the viewer with a shot of Hughes obsessively repeating a phrase makes the film depart on a haunted note, that hints at what is to come, while leaving just enough ambiguity to make it work as symbolism rather than just strict biography.  Although Scorsese provides viewers with a possible explanation for Hughes’s insanity, he never overplays this hand either, not allowing simplification of the mystery of the human condition.

If the film follows any traditional narrative it is that of the classic tragedy, where the hero’s strengths are exactly what destroy him.  Before the last moments of the film, the hero’s strengths allow him to rise for one final triumph.

Although Hughes’s demons are largely the result of a inner struggle, the film also seems to be commenting on how society tries to destroy the dreamer.  Hughes dreams bigger and bolder than everyone around him and for the mundane everyday nature of commerce and bureaucracy try to bring him down.  We like to tell ourselves the narrative that we reward hard work and bold ideas, but we really only reward those a great deal of the time if they fall within a pre-established order.  If someone doesn’t kneel before the powers-that-be, those powers, which have the backing of the majority, will try attain retribution.

It’s also interesting that the very things that Hughes struggles with, outside of his own personal demons, are the same thing that haunts our society today, which is the unholy alliance of big business and government.  When big business is allowed to corrupt our government, the results are not only bad for the individual, but for society at large.  When we look at the freak power that is now the Republican party, we see these forces at work in our own time.  In a way this film is not only an interesting character study, but timely as well.

Lost River Review


Last night I saw Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, and I loved it.  If you are a fan of directors like Nicholas Winding Refn or David Lynch, I think you will like it.  It’s definitely a strange fever dream of a movie, and one I don’t think you would like if you are not comfortable with abstraction.  It’s certainly a late night art house kind of a movie.  The whole thing is visually gorgeous, with vivid colors that explode onscreen.  I kept thinking of describing the movie as looking like “melting cotton candy” while I watched it.  Even horrific images of things like houses burning, are darkly beautiful.

The movies takes place in an imaginary version of American, filmed in the depressed areas of Detroit.  Christina Hendricks, best known for Mad Men, plays a mom that is trying to keep hold of the family home.  In order to make payments she takes a job working in a nightclub, hired by an unsympathetic bank manager who also runs the nightclub at night.  It is later observed that even his one act of kindness, providing employment, have malicious intentions.  The club, a place that looks like New Orleans on acid, excels in acts that are full of mock blood and gore that distract its patrons from real nightmares of their days.  What goes on in the basement of the club is even more sinister.

The other plot line centers around Hendricks’s son, Bones.  Bones trys to help provide by finding useful scrap that can be sold.  In doing this he runs afoul of the local gang lord, Bully.

The plot in and of itself may not sound like much, as visuals, sound design, and dream logic play every bit as much of a role in the proceedings as the story itself.  What the camera sees, how things sound, tell you as much as the dialog and the overall story arc.  This doesn’t mean that the general story arc is not clear, even if there are ambiguities, but the movie is more of a poem than a novel.

The performances of many of the main characters are great.  The characters are more archetypes than fully fleshed out personalities, but in this kind of movie it helps, as it does away with exposition and allows the movie to attain a kind of dream state.  You know who those people are and where they stand in the universe after only a scene or two.  Particularly great is Matt Smith, formerly of Doctor Who, as the psychopath Bully.  Also great is Ben Mendelsohn, who takes a Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet turn at the microphone, as the bank manager/nightclub manger.  Out of the protagonists it is Christina Hendricks that makes the most impact, as she makes the most out of her scenes, and seems visually created to be in this film.  Also great is a cab driver played by Reda Kateb, who makes a strong impression with very little screen time.

There are political overtones in the film, but this is not a political film in any traditional sense.  Kateb’s cab driver talks about the disappointment between how immigrants view this country and the reality that they find here.  One can’t help but be in disbelief of the world that in front of ones eyes, the dilapidated buildings, the seedy gas station, and know that however beautiful it all is in some strange way, due to the colors of the film and its dream like nature, it is equally horrific, especially realizing that this is all filmed in real world Detroit.  The closing scene also is especially meaningful, though I don’t want to spoil it, if one thinks about the symbolism behind it.

However, make no mistake.  This film is first and foremost about creating an emotional experience.  Helped by this is the great music created by Johnny Jewel, and the title song by his band The Chromatics.  Much like Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive, which starred Gosling and also featured music by the above participants, the movie has 80’s cinema overtones, even if these overtones are more about how we remember certain movies from that period, less than the reality of those movies themselves.

This movie received many negative reviews and was booed by a large part of the audience at Cannes, where it debuted.  However, I think this movie will gain a cult audience overtime.  I understand how there are people that will never like this movie, as it is very unsettling and requires work on part of the viewer to interpret its many charms.  However, if you love batshit insane movies that deal largely in imaginative visuals and ecstatic emotions, then definitely give this one a try.  Despite all of its obvious debts to other works, it still manages to create a unique and compelling world that is worth spending time in.

Not Everything is Equal

I read an article the other day where it was criticizing Simon Pegg because he claimed that sci-fi wasn’t as good as it used to be.  It then went into some argument that critiquing populist art was elitism.  I call bullshit loud and clear.  Pegg was making maybe too much of a blanket claim, but criticism is valid.

Art, like people, should never be judged as a group.  You don’t want to say hip-hop isn’t valid, but classical music is, or art house movies are valid, but summer blockbusters aren’t, etc.  But you can say, “so and so is vapid or such and such has merit”, when it comes to specific pieces.  Opinion always plays a role.  So does understanding.  There have been plenty of times I didn’t get something, only to get it later based on increasing knowledge.  Things also work on different levels.  Something may be excellent escapism and something might be excellent in making you think.  Different pieces for different moods and times.

The door is always left open to screw up in an assessment of something.  Rigidity is a mistake.  But all that being said, you can sure as shit argue that one thing is more worthy than another.

First of all popularity is no proof of validity.   Hitler’s ideas were popular at one point.  Especially in the modern world, when marketing plays such a huge roll in getting above the din, popularity just means exposure half the time.  This does not mean popular stuff is bad, only that popular is not the equivalent of good.

So whoever wrote that article with Simon Pegg is a clown.  You have to try to discern good from the bad.  Everything is not equal. The Kardashians are not Macbeth.   Life is short.  You need to have some kind of measurement of worth so that you don’t spend what little time you have turning your brain into mush.    Again, popular entertainment can be fantastic, but just the fact it is popular doesn’t mean anything.  Elite can infer stuck up, but it can also infer the best.  “They were elite soldiers.”  I wish more people would spend a little time asking for the best, and not settling for the banal:  Putting on whatever comes on TV or the radio without questioning it, drifting into the American night, lost and unaware, primed to lose.