Rec Room: Inarticulate Dreamers And A Quiet Apocalypse

Toward the end of Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation, newly-minted New Yorker and aspiring rock star Alan Peoples (Justin Rice of the band Bishop Allen) drunkenly confesses to his friend Ellie (Rachel Clift): “See, you have all this potential, but then, you know, the more things you make…the more you get closer to, I don’t know…failure.”* And that’s when I cringe, and curl up in a ball on my couch. Way too close to home, I think. I feel the same way about Liz Lemon. I’m not sure if I would love this movie as much if I were watching it twenty years from now…It’s a small, artfully made little film–there’s no doubt that Bujalski is a talented director. But it feels a bit like a hidden-camera version of my own life. I don’t think I’ve had the same starry-eyed view of New York culture as Alan, who sees it as one big hipster love-in. But I certainly have had that same view of my own future, and I’ve spent more than my fair share of time wandering around Brooklyn in varying states of sobriety, trying desperately to figure out what exactly it is I want to do with myself. In any case, I have a feeling that Mutual Appreciation will probably strike a chord with a lot of 20-somethings in the grand tradition of Slacker, and Reality Bites–so make sure to check it out (easy for those with Netflix instant-viewing capabilities) before you watch it and think “It’s just a lot of inarticulate, navel-gazing children–I don’t get it.”

Recommended if: You like minimalist indie films where not much happens, swoon at Justin Rice’s disarming grin, and want to see what this whole “mumblecore” thing is really about.

Not for you if: Watching self-involved college grads angst, play guitar and indulge in long, awkward pauses is your idea of cinema-hell.

*I’m paraphrasing because I didn’t have the wits to write this quote down at the time. Generally though, I’ll do my best to transcribe directly, since misquoting is a giant pet peeve of mine.

Watching Michael Haneke’s Le temps du loup (Time of the Wolf) turned out to be a fitting complement to finishing Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (the film version of which I can’t wait to see). Both present a disquietingly familiar picture of the apocalypse, unexplained except through hints. Both show previously civil people alternately resort to desperate and inhuman measures to survive, while others attempt to retain some semblance of humanity. The main difference between the two is that Haneke’s film does not isolate its protagonists as McCarthy’s novel does, but throws them in the mire with the other stragglers.

I have a strange affinity for Haneke’s filmmaking, as masochistic as it can be. Perhaps because he takes an unusual approach to horrifying topics (murder, incest, torture, and sadomasochism to name a few). Where writers are told to “Show, don’t tell,” Haneke takes the approach of “Divert, don’t show,” so that the few moments of on-screen brutality are all the more disturbing for their sparsity. Take a scene where a mother is grieving at the burial of her child. We see the little mound of earth with its wooden cross, but the mourning family is shown only from the knees down. We hear the woman’s keening intensify, almost unbearable to listen to as slowly the rest of the group walks away and the scene grows dark. As the mother finally leaves, still sobbing, it’s only then that we see torches moving slowly toward us over the hillside. Of the five Haneke films I’ve watched, this is probably the least affecting, or perhaps just the least stomach-turning. But it’s powerful nonetheless, and it’s interesting to watch the incredible Isabelle Huppert (probably my favorite French actress working today) play such a subdued, somehow fiercely fragile character.

Recommended if: You love dark (literally and figuratively–I could barely see the first 20 minutes of the movie) foreign films with inconclusive endings, Michael Haneke, and not-so futuristic depictions of the end of the world.

Not for you if: Any amount of violence makes you squeamish, or you can’t handle slow pacing (for it is veeerrrry slow at times).

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WWMJD? (What Would Movie-Jesus Do?)

buddy_christ*Disclaimer: I write this as a staunch agnostic, having no personal attachment to Christianity whatsoever, and no intent to offend those who do.

Several years ago, as part of a course on censorship in books and film, I was supposed to watch Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. I can’t remember if I was sick, or just ditched class that day, but I never got around to it until now. I remember being fascinated by the post-screening lecture, the extreme reaction that this film produced. Hardly suprising, given the subject matter.

I don’t mean the film’s conceit of Jesus living as an ordinary man, but any film that deigns to approach religion, or any dogmatic cultural practice, head-on. (Angels and Demons, Ron Howard’s follow up to the abysmal Da Vinci Code, is getting relatively little flack, it seems, because the movie has been almost universally reviewed as one of the dullest movies ever made about the Catholic Church, conspiracy theories, Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgard notwithstanding.) But I digress (Get used to it).

Watching The Last Temptation, I kept thinking of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which I’d watched once out of perverse curiousity. The two movies chronicle many of the same events of Christ’s life–mainly, his final days in Jerusalem and his crucifixion at Golgotha. Gibson’s movie received its own truckload of flak and hype, but is generally embraced by Christian sects as a faithful account of Jesus’ torture and death (I would not say it is about the resurrection, as about ten seconds of the two-plus hour movie are dedicated to that miraculous event).

Now both movies have their flaws (hello, Peter Gabriel’s synth-tastic score and Harvey Keitel’s heinous red fro; so long, contents of my stomach, after watching Jesus being flayed with a glass-tipped cat-o’-nine-tails), but as a secular viewer, I find Temptation to be a much more interesting film than Passion.

Scorsese’s film is based on a fictional novel that posits: “What if Jesus had been spared, and lived to old age as an ordinary man, rather than the Son of God?” But what an interesting question that is–the theologists I find the most convincing are those who allow room for you to question the basic tenets of a given faith, to relate the stories to your own life, to consider the alternatives. In an extensive parsing of the film, Steven Graydanus argues that the film is blasphemous because it is impossible to portray Christ as an ordinary man while simultaneously recognizing and revering his divine nature.

But both movies were made by religious men, and in my mind, Gibson’s gore-fest passion play doesn’t do nearly as good a job at communicating Jesus’ sacrifice as Temptation does. The Passion of the Christ depicts, in excruciating detail, the exact horrors inflicted upon him, but it is all but impossible while watching the film to move from disgust to appreciation of the divine. Jesus is tempted several times over in The Bible, and even questions God in the moment before his death–to give this larger-than-life figure free will and the chance at a normal life humanizes him more than any other depiction I’ve seen–and still the final message is that choosing this life is to betray a greater purpose:

“Blasphemy” is a tricky word, entirely subjective–and I object on principle to artistic repression of any kind. But if censorship gives us anything, it’s an encyclopedia of some of the most interesting works conceived by the human mind. So thanks, Patriarchy, for making my “To Read/Watch/View” list that much easier!

I could write a whole separate post on the depiction of the devil as female in both films, but I’m a bit Jesused-out at the moment. And my guess is, so are you.

Patrick Wolf at Le Poisson Rouge

Patrick Wolf

When Patrick Wolf came on stage for an acoustic set at Le Poisson Rouge* last night, looking one part Brian Slade, one part Twilight (seriously, was he wearing pancake makeup, or are the Brits really that pasty?), and one part naughty Bavarian schoolboy, it was hard to know what to expect from this musical wunderkind. In case you aren’t familiar with M. Wolf, he’s been performing professionally since his late teens, making him a veteran of the indie circuit at the ripe old age of 25. His visual style is right out of glam, and there are more than hints of Morrissey-esque longing in his angst-ridden ballads. But given that Wolf has mastered the piano, violin, viola, guitar, ukulele and dulcimer as well as being an accomplished singer, it’s guaranteed that his music is never derivative.

Chattering amiably throughout the sold-out show, Wolf almost literally charmed the pants off the audience fretting about his costume (“Have I got camel toe? Is that okay?”) and acknowlegding his aunt and cousin seated at the front of the stage, all while flirting shamelessly with the crowd. He talked of his fantasy of Bleecker street being rife with little piano bars, and clearly relished the chance to perform a less formal, staged show, taking requests throughout the hour and change (as he lacked a set list). Floating back between old and new songs–one highlight being a love song influenced by Appalachian poetry–Wolf showed himself to be aware of his own penchant for melodrama (gesturing grandly during the relative breakout hit “The Magic Position”), but also opened himself up to the audience in a way that took him away from the glam aesthetic. In discussing time spent traveling to Ireland to research his family tree, trolling YouTube for dulcimer videos, falling apart and falling in love, it was as if Wolf was offering his fans an explanation for his long hiatus (in 2007 he threatened to quit the musical world altogether). After this chance to see such a genuinely talented artist minus most of the bells and whistles, it’s clearly a blessing that the man is back in full force.

Look for Patrick Wolf’s new album, The Bachelor, on June 2, which features a guest spot from actress/androgynous/polyamorous woman of mystery Tilda Swinton.

*This is just to note that after two shows Le Poisson Rouge is quickly becoming one of my favorite low-key venues in the city. Good sound, reasonable ticket prices, a great line-up of talent from a variety of genres, and an intimate atmosphere that I thought was nearly dead and gone. Thankfully, I was wrong. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

Patrick Wolf, “The Magic Position:”

Rec Room: Phenomena

I find that there are two schools of thought re: Dario Argento’s films: they’re gratuitous, badly-acted crap, or they’re gratuitous, badly-acted brilliance. But even his admirers are ready to admit the man’s movies are uneven at best. Suspiria irrefutably falls into the latter category, containing all his best trademarks (creatively low-budget yet effective gore, striking cinematography, truly insane plot lines involving supernatural forces–in this case, a hideous, dying witch).

However, the jury’s out on Phenomena.

Pros

  • Pre-Labyrinth Jennifer Connelly, who clearly never went through an awkward stage, the bitch.
  • A knife-wielding chimpanzee.
  • Some truly creepy imagery, including a shot of someone being stabbed through the back of their head with the blade protruding from the victim’s screaming mouth, and a last-act villain who could not be more disgusting if Dario had fashioned him out of an embalmed horse fetus.  The Saw Franchise clearly took a page from Argento’s book.

Cons

  • Really, really bad acting. Connelly is decent, but only by comparison.
  • Really, really obtrusive music by the likes of Iron Maiden and Motörhead.
  • Lots and Lots of bugs. Eeeek!
  • A knife-wielding chimpanzee.

Recommend if: you’re in the mood to make fun of an alternately cheesy but truly freakish horror-flick. A glass of wine (or three) adds to the experience.
Stay away if: you’ve never seen Argento’s work before. Start with Suspiria, then go from there.

Rec Room, briefly

  • I can’t properly review the Benoît Pioulard show I attended at Le Poisson Rouge this Tuesday since my experience of the concert was laced with intense nostalgia (The Freud Café in Oxford, England; road trips to New York; the masterpiece Radiohead concert at Southpark in 2001 that was the start of such a beautiful friendship), but with objectivity I can say that you’re truly missing out if you’re not listening to this fine young man’s music.
  • Two wonderful stories discovered while catching up with McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern–“Bird Feed” by Ashlee Adams (beautiful for perfectly capturing the tone of one woman’s sad, quiet life and showing the possibilities ahead of her. A contrast in a surrogate and biological motherhood, what’s expected in those relationships and what reality gives us), and “The Crack” by Mikel Jollet (just verges on the edge of characters too quirky for their own good, but the sobering, sweet ending saves it from being self-consciously twee).

Readers should wait with bated breath for: Thoughts on Jesus in film, Slumdog Millionaire, Patrick Wolf, and my ongoing battle with David Foster Wallace (R.I.P.)