Tiny Beautiful Things, Part Two

I’d love to say the reason I’ve let this blog fall into disuse is because my life has simply become too busy; unfortunately, it’s quite the opposite. I’m currently living in a miasma of boredom, having let myself fall into disuse. In my experience boredom doesn’t beget creativity, it begets more boredom. And along with that, if you’re not careful, is a growing sense of worthlessness and futility. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the existentialist movement was born out of a long period of unemployment.

N is for Neville Who Died of Ennui, Edward Gorey Gashlycrumb Tinies

But just in the last week or so I’ve felt the tiniest shift. The marvelous Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half talks about this in her comic Depression: Part Two. There’s a moment when she’s trying and seemingly failing to get better, and while lying on the kitchen floor spies a tiny piece of corn under the fridge. I’ll let her explain:

I don’t claim to know why this happened, but when I saw the piece of corn, something snapped. And then that thing twisted through a few permutations of logic that I don’t understand, and produced the most confusing bout of uncontrollable, debilitating laughter that I have ever experienced.

The smallest change. A reminder that you can feel things other than malaise and apathy. After living in a fog, there’s that glimmer of the person you remember being. For Allie , it was a kernel of corn; for me, it was David Bowie.

Yes, you.

I’ve watched an absolutely stupid amount of television and movies in the last nine months. I haven’t kept a tally, but if I had there’d probably need to be some sort of intervention. I’ve been half amazed, half dismayed by my seemingly inexhaustible appetite for passive entertainment. Why am I not sick of this yet?, as I queue up the sixth straight hour of The WireHow has my brain not dribbled out my ears? Have I actually caused brain damage? I’m having trouble remembering things lately. There’s all those studies that link the amount of screen time to early death. Oh god, I’m going to die on my couch of a heart attack at 31. And so on and so Alvy Singer.

But I sat there procrastinating once again, this time with Five Years, a nonconsecutive look at key moments in Bowie’s career, from Major Tom to mainstream sellout. It was little things: the drumbeat intro of the title song; Bowie slumped against a booth in beatnik drag, watching his backup singers rehearse; a glam-era show where he pulls Mick Ronson to him with the amp chord, impish and flirting as he plays Mick’s guitar in a filthy pantomime. But most of all, it was the music.

The movie itself is great for fanatics (though best of all is probably D.A. Pennebaker’s film of the last Ziggy Stardust concert), but more to the point it inspired me to dig up the albums I hadn’t heard in a while, and to finally listen to the handful of classics I’d inexplicably skipped. Somewhere between the epic build of “Station to Station” and the balls-out melodrama of “Life on Mars,” I thought to myself: I’m so glad I live in a world where David Bowie exists.

He’s had me since Labyrinth. Which explains a lot.

Gratitude’s been difficult for me this last little while, compounded by a sense of guilt over failing to handle hard times with grace. I could see the people and things in my life that were good, but could only appreciate them in an abstract way. And this may have been the first pure moment of gratitude I’ve had in ages. I was able to conjure up the same excitement and inspiration I felt hearing “Soul Love” for the first time, on a mix tape from a camp friend. I wasn’t sure I could still take that much pleasure in something without angst or anxiety. Just a pure sense of joy, no caveats. Here is a thing that makes me happy, and isn’t it marvelous?

Since then I’ve been grooving to “Golden Years” and “Fame.” I’ve taken little steps forward. Ideas are starting to percolate again, and I honestly wasn’t sure they would. I should’ve known that the starman would bring me back.

Tiny Beautiful Things

Tom Cullen and Chris New in Weekend

I don’t know why it took me so long to watch Weekend. It’s been sitting in my Netflix queue for at least a year now. All the critics I trust raved when it came out. The story is simple: Russell and Glen, two twenty-something gay men, go home together and over the course of the next couple days find themselves growing unexpectedly, disarmingly close.

Actually, that first sentence is a complete lie. I know exactly why I avoided this beautiful little film: I believed, correctly, that it would cut me to the bone.

I am a sucker, in life and in art, for intense and immediate connections. The feeling that against reason and all your hang ups, you’ve found a kindred spirit. Sometimes those connections are short lived, and sometimes they’re the foundation for something life-changing. Weekend captures that feeling perfectly, how exciting it is, how there’s always tension around the possibility that the connection will prove false. The feeling of wanting to lay yourself bare. Of knowing you absolutely can’t.

Weekend is a particular sort of film that I love intensely when done well. These meandering stories where very little happens but the depth and evolution of the characters and their relationships are so precisely drawn that plot proves inessential. Linklater’s Before trilogy is this concept perfected (I haven’t seen it yet, but I get the sense that Boyhood has much the same quality).

These are films where the small moments stay with you: in Before Sunrise, it’s Jesse and Celine pressed up against each other in a record store listening booth. In Before Sunset, it’s the moment where Jesse confesses his dreams and Celine reaches out to touch him, but draws her hand back before he notices. This one gesture reveals so much about her, and it’s just between Celine and the viewer. A secret, shared moment.

In Weekend, the whole film feels like that moment stretched out over the course of an hour and a half. The growing intimacy sneaks up on the audience almost as subtly as it does for the men in the film. That first morning Russell makes them instant coffee and they chat awkwardly–the typical aftermath of a one-night stand. By the end, Glen is the one making coffee and moving around the apartment like he’s lived there for years when it’s only been one day. They don’t know exactly why, but this time things weren’t typical at all. And in a movie like this the why doesn’t matter, because the believability of their romance does all the work.

I watched Weekend twice in one day because I couldn’t get it out of my head. The last time I did that was with Half Nelson, which is also a small story in its way. Both times I went back so quickly because I knew there was so much more to get out of these films and I wanted to dive right back into the worlds they created. I wanted to remember my own whirlwind romances and unlikely connections. I wanted to write about movies again for the first time in a very long while.

Bridget, Carrie and the Fantasy of Female Friendship

The girls

Just the other day various corners of the internet started burbling over the news that a third Bridget Jones movie might be in the works. I found the first movie charming, and the fragments I caught of the second movie were as gimmicky as I’d heard. The books, though—I’ve read those books more times than I can count, and I can’t quite tell you why, given how much disdain I have for things labeled “chick lit.” The only way I can explain is that Bridget Jones’ Diary was in some ways the first in this new wave of lightweight books about modern women, and so there’s a breath of originality to it, and also of true wit, given that both books are loosely based on Jane Austen novels (satisfying my lit-snob standards).

So how is it that I can love these books, about a somewhat vapid, self-centered woman and her dating life, and hate Sex and the City as much as I do? I’ll admit that I hate the show much less than I used to, because I’m old enough now to identify with some of what the women go through. But man, watching those chicks simper over $800 stilettos and play pun-laden head-games with the men they date is often enough to get me throwing things at the tv set.

The other day though, I was talking to a friend about our shifting social circles, and she hit upon something that explained why I love Bridget and other women love Carrie and co. so much. “I wish I had a group of girlfriends like in Sex and the City. Where we hang out all the time and know everything that’s going on with each other.” And I realized in that moment—the fantasy we find so appealing in these stories? It’s not about Mr. Big or Mark Darcy. It’s about Miranda and Charlotte, Shazzer and Jude. What we really wish we could have are those friendships.

When I was a teenager, I had a number of very close female friends who filled what I’ll call that “boyfriend/girlfriend space.” They were the people I talked to every day, who would pick up the phone at any hour of the night. Even when we had boyfriends, we were each other’s main source of emotional support. A few years ago, I reconnected with one of these girls, and after a brief visit she wrote me, saying, “it was wonderful to see you, but I was also kind of angry, because we don’t have the friendship we used to, and I don’t know that that kind of friendship is even possible anymore.”

Bridget and Shaz

Whether it’s a question of less time to spare, or increasing responsibilities, or lack of motivation—that energy we used to pour into our friendships in high school is mainly reserved for romantic relationships when you’re an adult. All of this is not to say I don’t have close friends any more—I have a good number, who I love to death, but there just isn’t that same intense connection that I had with those girls at sixteen.

And that’s what we see when the girls meet for coffee every day in S&TC, or when Bridget and her pals drop everything to get sloppy drunk and watch the BBC Pride and Prejudice together. I think for a lot of us, those friendships are increasingly rare. Maybe I’m too quick to generalize, but when I’m single the thing I miss the most is the closeness that isn’t by necessity romantic. A movie like Bridesmaids (which I adored), hits this same note—while it’s a movie about a wedding, it’s really a movie about how hard it is to have and hold on to your friends as you go through various phases in your life. I’d say I Love You, Man is about the same thing. I love these types of stories because they make me wistful, and make me laugh, and imagine weekly phone calls and a Sunday brunch that’s rarely missed.

One of the reasons it’s taken me so long to write again in this space is that I’ve been torn between the desire continuing to write about everything I’m taking in, art-wise, and the need to talk about the more personal things rattling around my head lately. This hits somewhere in the middle, but I’m probably going to try and keep things fairly professional around these parts. Nevertheless, it’s nice when what I’m consuming and what I’m feeling coincide so neatly—when I can read a sentence and think “that’s exactly it! That’s just how it feels.” It’s part of the reason we all love these silly little books and shows so very much. They remind us how not-alone we are after all.

Rec Room: Emerging from the Abyss (otherwise known as a day job)

Hey, shiny new layout! And as promised, I haven’t forgotten this blog–in fact, I think writing in it maintains my sanity (what that says about the last two months, well, I’ll leave that up to you to decide).

I’m working on some more thematic entries that will take a bit more time to write, but in the meantime I want to pass along some recommendations:

Film: I recently checked out the 1988 film The Vanishing (not be confused with the American remake of the same name, starring Jeff Bridges). I was somehow unaware of this film, and the notoriety of its third-act twist, but I’m so glad I went in completely unspoiled. The story is of Rex and Saskia (Gene Bervoets and Johanna ter Steege) a young Dutch couple who are travelling through France on holiday when she suddenly disappears at a rest stop. The film follows Rex and he spends the next years of his life obsessively tracking down her abductor. It’s a fascinating film for its pacing alone, which I imagine is what got audiences talking when the film first came out. It’s hard to know what to expect from a film that reveals its villain before he’s even committed the crime. It makes you consider the reality of such a nightmare: the feeling of someone you love disappearing into thin air, and the impact that would have on your life. Highly recommended. Do yourself a favor and go in spoiler-free.

Continuing on to nearby Sweden, I finally checked out Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage, because I am a cinematic masochist (more on that at a later date). I somehow haven’t seen much Bergman, but man is he a cynical bastard. If we are to take the relationship between Marianne (Liv Ullman) and Johan (Erland Josephson) as typical–or even normal–then marriage is nothing more than a particularly twisted codependency. Few scenes have hit me as hard as that of the couple’s first separation. As I watched Johan dispassionately tell his wife he was leaving her for another woman, I thought of all the people I know who’ve split and for the first time felt I had a window into what hell those final conversations must have been. This is an extraordinary film, but you have to brace yourself to be emotionally pummeled.

Television: Slate’s Pop Culture Gabfest podcast has been getting me through my workdays lately, and one of their many excellent recommendations was the BCC miniseries The Forsyte Saga. It’s an epic period soap-opera starring pretty much every “Hey! It’s That English Guy!” working today (including Rupert Graves, who I’ve loved ever since he frolicked in the buff in A Room With A View). For those who gobbled up Downton Abbey earlier this year, it’s equally engrossing and a great way to get your salacious period drama fix while waiting for Abbey’s second series.

And lastly, Things I’m Excited About:

So what are you pumped for this summer?

Time-Suck Friday, Take 2

Gumby Man My Brain HurtsI swear, actual content will reappear very soon (I feel like there’s an unwritten rule that after you acknowledge a lack of posting x amount of times, your blog is on its way to a premature death. That’s not going to happen here–really, truly).  I’m a bit of a stressball today, with a welcome but unexpected rush writing gig and the anticipation of a completely bonkers amount of things to get done next month. But here are some things that I loved on the internet over the last couple months, and I think you will, too:

  • On April 2nd I went to the very last LCD Soundsystem show at Madison Square Garden, and basically spent my summer-vacation money to do so. I can tell you now I don’t regret it one bit. Partly because I was there with friends who shared this band with me as the soundtrack to the last five-odd years. There was a lot of Planet Emo going on in our little section of the stadium, plenty of compulsive hugging and biting back tears. But also: the band was incredible. It was the first time I saw them perform live, and I’m just sad that I never managed to see them earlier. To be honest, I really only fell in love with them last spring, when the throbbing base of “Dance Yrself Clean” jerked me out of my ongoing Alpine funk. I spent weeks listening to that track on repeat, wanting to dance in the street. Sometimes, all it takes to fall truly in love with a band (or, for that matter, a person) is that one little push. And then you’re done for. In honor of the band’s passing, Pitchfork published an exhaustive look at every song LCD ever recorded. It’s a fascinating, dynmaic biography of the band, tracing its evolution with videos, clips, and excerpts of interviews with that slovenly bad-ass, James Murphy. Don’t read it all at once, if it’s too intimidating. But dip a toe in–you won’t be sorry.
  • A study in contrasts: I encourage you to read Truman Capote’s seminal “The Duke in His Domain,” a 1957 profile of Marlon Brando for The New Yorker that just hints at the eccentricity to come. Then check out the 1979 interview in Playboy with Lawrence Grobel, in which the interview is forced into impressive contortions to get the actor to talk about anything but the plight of the Native American people. It’s fascinating to see how much (or how little) he transformed over that 20-year period.
  • I’m fairly new to podcasts, but boy howdy do they make a slow work day sped by. I highly recommend: How Did This Get Made?, in which some very funny people disect some very bad movies; Extra Hot Great, in which three former heavyweights of TWOP look at all things pop culture, including a trivia round and an evolving canon of great TV; and Firewall & Iceberg, in which HitFix TV critics Dan Fienberg and Alan Sepinwall delve into the high-and-lowlights of this week’s television offerings.
  • DOCTOR WHO! Is back this Saturday! I…well, I really think it’s a show you dig or you don’t. And I say this as someone who thought I wouldn’t like it (evidently, I was wrong), that if you have any inclination towards British wit/culture and a willing suspension of disbelief, you should give it a shot. And if you’re already a fan, you should check out Sepinwall’s interviews with Matt Smith, Karen Gillen, and Alex Kingston.

Radiohead, The King of Limbs

TKOL Album CoverBack when In Rainbows came out in 2007, I had a long, convoluted take on the album, the gist of which was: I want to love it, but it feels like a step backwards. Part of what I admire about Radiohead is how often they’ve successfully reinvented themselves. One reason a certain generation of music fans reveres them is because Radiohead was one of a few ’90s bands that took successful musical risks in the wake of mainstream success, opening their listeners up to genres they might have otherwise ignored. The changes in style (particularly between OK Computer and Kid A) were shocking at the time, but if you look back there seems to be a logical progression through those first five albums. And then with Hail to the Thief (2003) and In Rainbows it felt like the band doubled back on itself. Some people called it a return to their classic sound, but to me it felt like these albums could’ve been made by a band that had never progressed past the catchy hooks of 1995’s The Bends, and I was disappointed.

The King of Limbs, on the other hand–while I wouldn’t call it an “important” Radiohead album–from the second I heard the skittering beats of “Bloom,” I knew that Thom and co. had finally landed upon something that made much more sense in the wake of the experimentation on Kid A and Amnesiac. The spare production and emphasis on electronics makes King of Limbs a close cousin to Yorke’s solo LP, The Eraser–and those who found that album alienating probably won’t love this one. Nevertheless, this feels like something new from the band: tracks like “Lotus Flower” and “Little by Little” reveal a surprising off-kilter sensuality that I never would have credited to my favorite angst-ridden quintet, and there’s a much heavier emphasis on the impressive skills of drummer Phil Selway (whose own solo project came out earlier this month).

The King of Limbs isn’t a game-changing album, but after nearly twenty years as a successful rock band, does Radiohead even need to change the game? Fifteen years ago, this band arguably killed Brit Pop and ushered experimental electronic music into the mainstream–they’ve got nothing to prove other than the fact that they’re still a creative force to be reckoned with, and King of Limbs backs this up in spades.

And now for your enjoyment, the spaz-tastic video for “Lotus Flower” after the jump:

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Oscar Death Race: The Saga Continues

I’m ashamed to say I got a bit sidetracked in my Death Race screenings (what else is new?), but I’m planning to knock off a bunch more before Sunday night. Yes, this means I’m not going to watch Wolfman or Salt. I’ve only got five days left, and I won’t waste it on crap. Happily, this is a year where at least the major nominees are all quality films. Were there other, potentially better films made? Sure. But it’s nice to see a bunch of movies nominated that as a whole are all worth watching.

Here’s what I’ve knocked off in between Grey’s Anatomy marathons (I…have no excuse, really):

127 Hours: I put off watching this one for obvious reasons (spoilers in that link if you live under a rock (…heh.)), but as an avid fan of both Danny Boyle and The James Franco Experience, I’m glad I finally checked it out. I’m of two minds about the story-telling devices used: on the one hand, Ralston really experienced the visions and epiphanies that Franco has in the film, but it’s a case of something that is both genuine and–at least when portrayed cinematically–cheesy. That said, I thought that Boyle’s visual style worked really well in conveying the reality of being trapped under that rock, from the ethereal beauty of sunlight creeping in, to the disgusting crawl of urine traveling through a CamelBak straw. Like Renton diving into the Worst Toilet in Scotland or sinking six feet deep into a carpet, he manages to convey the un-conveyable. And as this somewhat mixed review from the SF Chronicle points out, his use of sound is absolutely visceral.

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