Like, Best of the Decade (Movies): Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (and a host of others)

December 30, 2009

Best Movies of the Decade

The Revolutionaries

-In short, they have everything you could want from a movie: Flawless, Emotional, Deep, Cerebral, Visceral, Original, and genuine Advancements for Cinema. By being “advancements for cinema,” they stake their claim on being starkly influential.

  1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – Forget me not… Gondry proves an alchemist by making the most heartfelt and organic feeling movie from the most cerebrally entrenched/interesting screenwriter of our era. It takes the most universal movie concept there is, love, and not only gets to the proverbial heart of the subject, but goes to David-Foster-Wallace-ian lengths to answer the age old question of why we ultimately need it. For any bit of art to be truly great in this world it needs to be at once emotional and congruently intellectual. There’s a phrase that’s appropriate that Chuck Klosterman once said of something else entirely, but I feel it completely applies: “[It] allows my mind to remain progressive, and my heart to stay reactionary. And this is all I want from everything. All the Time. Always.”
  2. Where The Wild Things Are – (original review) There is an admittance of being desperately unsure with this. It is a very recent release, which makes it tough, but even sitting in the theater, there was an immediate and profound connection for me. Some merely called it evasive, but I find it’s stunningly complex take on the last moments of our childhood to be genuine and tangible… though yes, it was a very recent release… Call it a projection.
  3. Mulholland Drive David Lynch makes the best possible David Lynch movie. Someone at work accused me of liking this because “I like pretending I get things that make no sense.” Besides being an inane comment, the thing I love about MD is that it does make perfect sense. Sure Lynch himself is as ambiguous and un-didactic as it gets, but there is most definitely some finely crafted thematic and plot schemes occurring on every level of the film. And, in the most important quality of a Lynch film, there is a litany of interesting details to the every scene. (Lost Highway and Inland Empire desperately lacked this quality, and it’s the reason they both stumble for me.)

The Miracle Movies:

-Much like the stuff above, only low-budget independent films which only lacked the form originality of the work above. These are flawless little films about big concepts and big emotions, yet their direct filmmaking style still serves as the perfect vehicle for their brilliant, observational themes.

4. Once – (original reaction) A subtle, emotional masterpiece. Most movies about “how we connect to people” are nothing but a forced convention, but this is as organic and honest as it gets. And there may not be a better film about the creation of music.
5. Y Tu Mama Tambien – The best film about sexuality I’ve ever seen (take that Last Tango in Paris!). But really it’s about learning how the sexuality of youth is so radically different from the sexuality of adults. It also solidified Cuaron as one of my favorite directors.

The Flawless films

-Brilliantly constructed films, possibly a little cerebral or genre-y, or maybe possibly guilty of not “saying enough” (though most often do)… Best way of putting it, these films simply could not be made any better than they were (hence you will see the word perfect a lot in these descriptions).

6. Children of Men –Of all the films on this list, this gets the most “It’s good and all, but I don’t know why it is so high.” Well, it is an amazing film on first viewing. It has a visceral edge throughout and its lauded cinematography completely blew the doors off the concept about how we (should) film action. The long shots were for anything but show. Instead, they created a mass of unbreakable tension. Yet even though everyone raved about how well made it is, but somehow it gets dismissed as being all about surface. To boot, it’s probably the best “revealing the story/movie/themes through small details” film I’ve ever seen… What we will be, is only who we are.
7. The Wrestler – (original review) A perfectly observed film. And it could not have succeeded if it did not both absolutely love its subject AND be unflinchingly critical in its depiction. All the accolades for the film seemed to be directed to Mickey Rourke (and he was certainly amazing) but the completely immersive nature of this film was solidified by a drive to be as accurate and true to life as possible: the old nes game, the sad signing shows, the authentic dialogue… it just shows provides another great example in a row of a film that revels in telling its story through the little details. And most surprisingly of all, it was made by Darren Aronofsky; the great hyper-formalist surprised the hell out of me and managed to make a lovable docu-drama that actually felt lived in.
8. No Country For Old Men – Let’s get this out of the way now, Every. Single. Thing. About this movie is perfect. The Coens walk in and show up just about every action movie of the decade by constructing the film with the most concentrated, yet intense filmmaking style imaginable (without once stepping over the line into overkill). It’s a modern master class in tension. Couple that with an incredibly poignant and cerebral last act and you have one of them there great movies.
9. Let The Right One In – (original review) A perfect amalgamation of the horror/art film (with all moments walking the tightrope and never dipping too far in either direction). Someone on CHUD wrote: “I’ve never before seen an ending that so completely satisfied my mind on an artistic level AND my gut on a gore level. Perfect.”
10. The Lives of Others – I dread building this one up for people. For two-some-odd hours it moves along with a nice slow burn and an invisibly brilliant performance… but someone who was previously told how amazing the movie was would hardly realize why… And then the movie comes its close with such a soft, poetic, and wholly earned gesture, firmly cemented in a devastatingly beautiful final line. And with that, it becomes a part of you.
11. Capturing the Friedmans – Probably best documentary I’ve ever seen? I’m not sure. It’s just so fascinating at every step, and you truly realize the more you actually learn, the less you actually know. The theme is really the great singular theme of the documentary, and helps illuminate who they all strive for the great lie of “objectivity.” It may be an impossibility, but it should always be the goal. Hence, the medium in its purest form.
12. Pan’s Labryinth – GdT makes the movie everyone hoped he had in him.
13. Inglourious Basterds – (original review) QT does what he hadn’t done since Pulp Fiction, which is not only perfectly reflect and embrace a genre he’s reveling in (and something he nails down every time no matter what), but also manages to transcend the genre by making something sneakily interesting. I think he’s got a lot more to say than people think, and this one has a lot to say about violence, how we respond to violence, history, and the sweeping power of cinema. Brilliantly meta stuff and entertaining as hell.

The Adventurous Films:

-Flawed, brave, interesting little punks of movies who are just so good at their one central aims, that you ignore the imperfection and I adore them anyway.

14. Tarnation – A no budget miracle movie that’s kind of a documentary, but just sort of the weirdest cinema experience I’ve ever had. The less said the better. Find it somewhere. See it. Be changed.
15. The New World – A long, rambling and hauntingly beautiful movie that’s pure storytelling through cinematography. God I love Malick.
16. There Will Be Blood – This one people don’t understand why I ranked it so low. I’m not really sure other than I simply like the movies listed above better. I love PTA, but the man writes from his gut and when you allow your gut to overrule your head you tap into some weirdly brilliant stuff. But it’s still stuff that doesn’t feel fully formed to me (even if certain moments are obviously intellectually constructed). Plus it’s a case of a performance AS a movie. It’s also a meditation piece on a said subject (greed) and as such, I don’t know. I need more viewing. Still. This is where it rests for now… It also briefly spawned a catchphrase for whatever that’s worth. I can’t remember the last time a low-budget, awesomely-weird art film spawned an addition to the lexicon of the basket ball court [drains 3 pointer] I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE!
17. Towelhead – Criminally overlooked. Ball came out of his superb work on 6 feet under with a brave as brave can be movie. Sure it lacks the genuine gut laughs of American Beauty, but you usually can’t laugh during Towelhead because you’re too busy being horrified and upset. It blends this absurd intensity with a sense of dark satire to make an entirely worthwhile and under-represented commentary about the sexualization of young girls. No one talks about the mixed messages we send young girls and then we have no idea why 13 year olds are putting naked pictures of themselves on the internet. Perhaps if Towelhead actually entered the national dialogue we’d be able to talk about this, but you know, whatever.
18. Thumbsucker – It sort of misses the “wow” factor and got written off as a rip-off of many of the films it seemed like, but this was an amazingly well-made film that approaches a largely symbolic story in a completely organic way. I seemly loved it. Especially Vincent D’Nofrio’s wonderful little bit as the confused dad.
19. The Ballad of Jack and Rose – The best film with the strangest, messiest, most amateurish-seeming opening act possible. But eventually it starts to sing and embodies some truly difficult-to-explore concepts, specifically the dangers of moral relativity. You think you’re beyond the point of “learning lessons” at this point of your life as we are so sensitive to didacticism, but in all honesty this taught me something I try hold onto every day. Just a great movie.
20. Little Children – And here Todd Field made a nature documentary about humans. It’s most admirable feat is that managed to dramatically under-use Jennifer Connelly and I didn’t even care. It also gave us back Jackie Earle Haley, so we owe it that.
21. A History of Violence – Cronenberg’s hyper reality (even bordering on silly) is just a masterwork of balancing tone. A lot of that is due to the distinctly Lynchian overtones, but Cronenberg taps into some really great stuff here. And yes, it has some amazing bits of cinematic violence. Bonus points for 1) Ed Harris 2) someone having the courage to show a marriage with an active sex life.

The Entertainments

22-25. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy – Self explanatory? My dad summed it up best upon finishing the third in his simple, slightly pedestrian, and achingly true sentiment: “it’s been a wonderful adventure.” And given what was at stake before they came out, they could easily be considered miracle movies too. Not a lot of people talk about it now (they will when the Hobbit comes out in a few years) but for 3 years filmgoers around the world got swept up in a beautifully delivered epic that whisked us to middle earth. It represented everything that big budget cinema entertainment should be.
26, 27. Anchorman/Knocked Up – The best insane and best character-based comedy of the decade respectively. Best respective lines: “milk was a bad choice” / “… my shit looks like a god damn stuffed animal”
28. The Bourne Supremacy – The perfect pure action movie. Intelligent without being indulgent and energy from start to finish. Not to mention the best car chase since bullet.
29. Ocean’s 11 – Because it’s the most delightful and charming 2 hours ever, that’s why! The sequels couldn’t succeed cause the cat was already out of the bag, but my word was this is a wonderfully made caper.
31-33. X2/Iron Man/Spider-Man 2 – Best comic book movies, all for different reasons.

The Honorable Mentions:

An Affair of Love – best film I totally thought was this decade, but wasn’t (1999). It’s really obscure but totally would have been one of those miracle movies above. We’re talking top 6. Just a beautiful film about sexuality-as-a-barrier and missed opportunities.

The Piano Teacher – best crazy-as-shit/film-schooly-type art movie. It’s nothing but thematics through and through, but also disturbing, unnerving, you name it.
United 93 – a movie that proved you could make a non-exploitative film about a recent tragedy. Just an absolutely gut-wrenching approach.

Wall-E – (original review) Best Pixar movie. Though Wall-E is waaaaay more flawed than Up, but because of it’s spectacular first act, litany of great sequences, and its overall sense of ambition, it gets the number one spot. And yeah, every Pixar movie this decade gets an honorable mention.
Brokeback Mountain – There’s bland prestige movies, and then there’s prestige movies worth the actual hooplah. This is one of them.

Talk to Her – There might not be a better film about empathy.

Me and You and Everyone We Know – A beautiful, strange, and divergent art-ish film that reflects her great fiction. Can’t wait for more from Miranda July.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance – Am I the only one who likes this movie better than Oldboy? Probably. Oldboy had all the audacity for sure, but it’s a surreal movie that’s all headgames and style to me. Mr. Vengeance was just interesting, but it’s off-kilter realism made it about forty times as heartbreaking as the other films in the trilogy.
The Door in the Floor – That great movie no one saw or completely forgot about. Plus it had one of those great endings that wasn’t a plot/twist thing, but instead just a simple thematic character reveal. Bloody brilliant.
Lost in Translation – A legitimate, popular voice in feminist filmmaking, what the hell? (people debate this feminist tag, but to me it’s evident). Incredible use of sound and audio texture to boot… maybe this should be on the real list… hmmm.
The Pianist – the holocaust movie that Polanski had been secretly making for his entire career. Seriously. Go back and watch The Tenant and think about this film and the holocaust while doing so… it provides a whole different lens.

The Man Who Wasn’t There – the forgotten great Coen movie. This reminds me that I haven’t seen it in awhile. This one needs a popular revival.

Audition – My introduction to Miike. Yikes… too bad he hasn’t made anything else as good as this (imho).

The Dark Knight – (original review) I like this one more and more the more I watch it. First off, at its heart it’s really just a chase movie. And that’s gravy. But there’s just a litany of great choices/one hell of a performance to anchor that. People seem to be going nuts over the plot holes lately, but I don’t really care. I mostly worry about how a lot of people mistake it for the best comic book movie simply because it’s the most serious. To quote the villain “why so serious?” Mr. Nolan? Oh yeah. People love that you do.

Blade 2 – Favorite piece of trash.


Like & Don’t Like: AVATAR and Mr. Cameron

December 18, 2009

What makes a movie a good?  It’s a straightforward question with a surprisingly straightforward answer: whatever you think makes it good.

Over the last few years I’ve come to the full realization that my extensive film school background has amounted to little when it comes to deciphering what makes something “good” on the popular level. We like to think that the opinion of someone who has seen thousands of different kinds of movies somehow accounts for a more qualified opinion, but this is truly not the case. Sure, it may provide someone with the ability to articulate their opinions and provide a historical or cultural context for their statements…  but really it makes no difference, as the court of public opinion always wins in the end. Thus there is a kind of acceptance needed when making a statement that you believe to be true, but fully recognizing that it’s nothing more than like, your opinion man. So here’s an opinion:

I don’t think James Cameron makes good movies. So there.

Oh don’t get me wrong, he’s a hell of a technical filmmaker. I’m not just regurgitating the popular rhetoric you see everywhere. This is going off all that “trained opinion” nonsense mentioned above. The guy simply “gets” cinematography. He knows how to line up the camera subject with enough spacing for the eye to process the movement. And he’s THE great editor of big budget action films (1, this is a really good footnote). With those two abilities he stages some of the best action I’ve ever seen on screen. Not in WHAT necessarily happens, but instead HOW it happens. I also greatly admire his commitment to creating full, tangible worlds and staying true to his vision. He is never half assing it and you can always be assured that movie goers get their money’s worth. This is to be admired. But as I have just lauded him with superlatives, we must always consider the whole filmmaker if we are going to speak to his merits. These are just aspects of his proverbial “game” and can in no way assure a singular, fully-formed piece of goodness from anything he does.

For example, he cannot write a screenplay. This is fine. A lot of great directors can’t do it. Spielberg never could and the dude is considered the best. Tim Burton famously insists that he has no idea what makes a good script. The problem is that Cameron thinks that he can write a screenplay. And proceeds to do so stubbornly.

It really is a shame that Cameron seems to have the brain of 12 year old. Sure, he’s a really smart 12 year old who is super-duper into perfectionism and computers and stuff, but all his films operate on in extremely juvenile plane of interest. And if you’ve ever heard anything about him as a person he’s operating on a 12 year old social level too.

So let’s actually get into AVATAR in relation to this topic. Having just seen the movie earlier yesterday, the thing that sticks out most in my head is how all the characters often swear in the silliest, 5-th grader like mentality. Really. The swears are the absolutely point of each line when they are uttered. They’re the joke. For example say there’s a big reveal and a pause: “Oh SHIT” or during a fight scene our witty dialogue is “take this BITCH!” The words are capatilized cause ever actor is so emphasizing these swear words that’s it’s like they’re delighted by their guts to swear. That’s because that’s exactly what Cameron is doing. It’s a PG13 movie and he’s using these swears in such a juvenile and silly manner that the entire theater was eye rolling  and groaning. I also fully recognize that these moments are completely harmless, but it’s just so prevalent and on the nose that you can’t help but get the full window into Cameron’s mind… the guy has a 12 year old ‘s sensibility to swearing.
He also has a 12 year old sensibility when it comes to military ideology, politics, ecology, and socialization. Sure that super advanced 12 year old brain converts these things into logical setups complete with a fully realized set proper nouns for his movie, but that doesn’t change that this is the most obtuse kind of rhetoric and analysis. The entire construct of the plot is the most in-your-face allegory of American imperialism I have ever seen. The details are hilarious: a precious resource, “unobtainium.” A earth goddess who you can actually hear through trees. References to modern warfare tactics that are literally thrown in to hammer home the Imperialism comparison (but in hilarious fashion, are the complete wrong use of those words). And make no mistake about this “original” story, it’s just Dances with Wolves in space. I’m talking beat for beat the same movie with 3rd act battle thrown in. Hell, throw in some Star Wars, Dune, and vast array of other films to be grossly aped and you have AVATAR. And let us not forget the short story he absolutely and totally ripped off :

Seriously, you got to see this cover:

http://www.chud.com/articles/articles/21297/1/WHAT039S-THE-LATEST-CLASSIC-SCIFI-CAMERON-RIPPED-OFF/Page1.html

Beyond that there is the fact that every single character in the film is the most broad and ridiculous stereotype possible. And no, not in a scenery-chewing, fun and self aware meta way that guys like Cronenberg and the Coens are absolute masters of. This is Cameron. And his characters will be willfully fucking obtuse. The general is absolutely insane, invasion-happy beefcake. The head scientist is stuck-up, military-hating, granola tree hugger. The guy in charge of it all is an aspergian dickhead who only wants his profits and to get at the precious resource beneath the Na’Vi’s home (not to mention work on his putting game… ugh). The girl Na’Vi who connects with the earth is nothing more than the infamous Noble Savage stereotype. And our main character, the jarhead marine, is nothing but the uneducated white man, who must learn the ways of the lesser people and connect back with the world. Now, all these stereotypes could be just fine for the movie. Actually, you use those five stereotypes and you’ve got all your angles, themes, and conflicts covered so that might not be a problem at all. You got your base. You just have to find away to make it organic.

Cameron don’t do organic. Nope. This is balls out broad. The idea of badassery. It’s all posing and posturing. Like 12 year old suburban kids starting “gangs” or that weird thing Japanese teens do where they literally pose to look cool. This is the cinematic equivalent of whatever the hell that is. And it’s laid on thick. This is cartoon villainy and college freshman idealism. And it kills the movie. (2)

So okay, we have some broad 12 year old dumbness. So what? Lots of films do that and are embraced by millions.

True. I’ll take Cameron’s logical filmmaking and epic scope any day over the parade of nonsensical trash and litany of directors who simply seem to have no interest in making good movies… but not by all that much.

The central problem is that Cameron makes these big action movies as if they’re actually prestige pictures. As if he’s making the singular profound statements for all man kind. Really, it’s just soaking in that kind of hubris. Once again, coupled with his real life obnoxious persona you start to get the idea of just what Cameron is all about. It’s all up there on screen, readily apparent. This is the stuff of the inane.

So obviously, I didn’t like AVATAR, right?

Actually, I kind of enjoyed it.

Devin Faraci over at CHUD, who evaluated the movie in far better terms than I have, made the excellent point that your ability to enjoy AVATAR fully depends on you ability to get into the designs. It sounds like a strange comment but it’s wholly accurate. The film takes a turn after the first act and essentially becomes a world viewing sequence where the viewer is brought along on a 40-60 minute tour of Pandora.  And unlike Devin, who was not able to get into the design of the creatures, I eventually went along with it. And when this all happens, the film soars.

I should note that this is largely due to the 3-D, which works amazingly well. It gives Pandora a real sense of depth and texture. You not really emoting FOR the actors or anything, but you’re emoting with them as they emote with Pandora too (you can surmise this works best because Cameron is in love with the world he created as well, and it shows). In particular, the first flying sequence with those pterodactyl thingies I found to be the most exhilarating part of the movie. This whole chunk of the film is enough of a cinematic experience for me to recommend it to anyone.  It just works.

But eventually this too must pass and the film heads into heartbreak mode/final battle sequence. Of course that’s when the wheels fall off. Not for any good reason either. This was always what was going to happen and you knew it was coming. Hell you can predict every single moment of this movie beat for beat, but that’s okay.  The real reason the wheels fall off is you realize you just spent the last hour on the cinematic equivalent of a nature walk and there was no actual story to begin with. Thus the climactic battle is taking place and I’m sitting there not caring if anyone lives or dies. This is not my usual modus operandi either. I’m an empathetic motherfucker when it comes to my movie protagonists. I actually found it a little distressing: “I was just enjoying these two and now I don’t care?”  Really, there was just nothing there to begin with.

Just hollowed out tropes and clichés desperately hanging onto the sublime skill of action filmmaking on display. It all looks fantastic. I just didn’t care.

To wit, if there was one word I would use to sum up this “game-changing” “action epic” called AVATAR, the word would be… pretty.

It is a very pretty movie. Which might be considered highly insulting to a movie that is trying desperately to be so much more. But it doesn’t have a single idea of how to transcend its base qualities or indulge in nuance.

And no, I’m NOT saying I need my big action movies to have Merchant Ivory level subtext or anything. I’m just saying they need something that transcends the basic archetypes into something resembling good movie entertainment. Like Ironman’s delightful sense of humor and organic characters. Like The Dark Knight’s moral complexity and stunning performances. Like The Lord of the Rings sense of balance and scope. Even Star Wars works because Harrison ford just kills it as Han Solo. These were all popular, epic-feeling movies that used certain strong qualities to move past the archetype and become a good movie for the popular consensus.

And with AVATAR, the prettiness, world-building, and actioneering almost get it there. But Cameron just relishes too much in the Archetype.

Almost.

Footnotes

(1) Let us speak for a moment about what editing truly is: there’s a popular notion that good editing is when you notice really good cuts and stylizations and juxtapositions. This notion fully feeds into that awards season it’s not “Best picture” or “Best acting” or “Best editing”, but instead “Most picture” “Most acting” and “MOST editing”. That’s why the Bourne films always win. Because it’s the only tangible thing an untrained eye can gravitate toward. And that’s totally understandable. The paradox is that great editing is truly invisible. Cuts in action that blend so seamlessly it feels like a perfect flow.  This is especially significant in action films. And Cameron and his rotating cast of editors are masters of the invisible cut (the rotating cast means that’s it’s really just Cameron doing most of this stuff).

(2) I should at least point out that I thought Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana did their fricken damndest to make it all work. In fact I thought they were both rather good in their roles (extensive mo-cap and animation to boot). But there’s just no saving the inanity of it all.

ADDENDUM

A) I always argue that the reason Titanic was so beloved was because (obviously) it was the perfect storm for girls and (not so obviously) because the music of that film is so amazingly beautiful that you simply had to swoon with it. The music was what transcended that movie from being a horribly forced allegory of class struggle and tragic romance into a movie that actually had some legs to stand on. There is a reason that soundtrack went on to become more iconic and referenced than that actual film, which was sort of just a moment in time.

B)Mr. Beaks over at AICN made an interesting note that even with all the problems with the movie, the cinematic world still needs Cameron.  And they need him to be successful. The need guys like him and Spielberg to go huge, push technical boundaries, and stretch budgets. And I think I agree, but it is an uneasy bargain for me.

C) Reader Kevin linked a positively great article in the comments section below about Cameron written by David Foster Wallace. Everything he says about T2 and the approaching Titanic, can completely be said for AVATAR. http://www.theknowe.net/dfwfiles/pdfs/Wallace-FX_Porn.pdf


Don’t Like, WORST of the Decade (Art): The Britney Spears Pro-Life Statue (NSFW?)

December 16, 2009

1) Irony will never die. It’s here to stay, for better or worse.

2) If it did, it was not in the wake of 9/11 when it the declaration was highly popular, but instead with the creation of this statue.

Why? Because at the time of the release, there was an honest to goodness belief that this was indeed a pro-life statue meant to honor Miss Spears’ “commitment to put her children ahead of her career.” Actual quotes from the artist, Danie Edwards. Look at it again. The bear skin rug. The pose. The legs akimbo. The crowning, my god the crowning. Was this truly some pro-lifer whose unfiltered id puked up a nonsensical, counterproductive, and all-together heinous  sculpture? Much like Stephanie Meyer, the “fabulous idiot” did with her Twilight series? Or was it merely the work of a subversive genius who was working a front in a “Borat” like capacity?

The truth is it was sort of both. Daniel Edwards is not a genius. Check out his wikipedia page. Yup. The body of his work seems to define the word inane. Specifically inane shock art. Probably attention whore too. Really he defines a lot of terrible qualities.  Then again he’s made a living off art, which probably makes him some kind of Machiavellian genius considering how impossibly hard that is to do. But still he’s a shock artist who sort of stumbled into this limbo zone where his impossibly zany decisions  rendered one of his sculptures bizarre enough to capture the public’s attention. To this day I have no idea what to make of it. I just feel confident in labeling this guy a terrible artist who stumbled into something that is both frighteningly dumb and fascinatingly dumb.

And thus the logic of irony collapse in on itself, like in “Timecop” where the same matter occupying same space. Altough that can’t be true because I just used irony.  No one would ever make a serious “Timecop reference.” Nobody.

And now the horror of the crowning shot.


Like, Best of the Decade (Art): Tim Hawkinson & Banksy

December 12, 2009

I’m not going to pretend I follow the art world close enough to have fully realized and educated opinion on the matter. They only realm I’m truly comfortable with is movies and TV. So take all this with a huge ass grain of salt. I simply pay relative attention on stuff on the internets, and I check out galleries from time to time; usually getting to see every other one of the major exhibitions at LACMA. I don’t really have a vested interest, just a passing interest. But I know what I like.

And Tim Hawkinson is my favorite artist.

His art has unfairly been categorized as being  “grotesque”, which is not only a judgment made on a fraction of his work, but one that misses the absolute restraint and intent of that work.  Remember at one time Picasso, was considered to be wholly grotesque too. And today’s definition of grotesque art has to goal to provoke the viewer, to shock and revolt. Those have never been qualities of Hawkinson. No, his bent on space and form is far, far more interesting because it’s always a matter of perspective. His work a remarkable amalgamation of installation and sculpture, formed with a rigid balance between an organic look (you can’t classify it is modern or cold), yet realized in its meticulous, detailed construction (like his tiny bird skeletons constructed from fingernails). The work is largely about balance. Not the concept of balance itself, but between the extremism of various forms.

Take his tree/man sculptures pictured above. They consume the space of the room. Each figure is fully realized and excruciatingly detailed. It is a remarkable sight in person (he actually made a much larger version for his exhibition at LACMA). But the best part of this piece is that it’s a functional percussion piece. Since I have no idea how he did it, I’ll just surmise it uses air, mechanics, and physics to create these steady beats and taps and clicks. It’s so peaceful and intriquing, a truly sensory experience. But more importantly it’s a complete experience. It balances technology, form, space, sensory experience, audio and detail. It’s everything I could want. And it’s a trait you see in all his work.

Check out a google search:

http://images.google.com/images?hl=en&safe=active&um=1&sa=1&q=tim+hawkinson&aq=f&oq=&aqi=g1&start=0

Meanwhile, I fully realize the significance of the effect that Banksy has had on the larger cultural audience.  Contrary to the opinion of some, it’s a great sign of ability when an artist transcends “art popularity” into “actual popularity.” So his books show up in Urban Outfitters and hipster haircut places… so what? That’s only because even non-art people can recognize that his art is good stuff. And yes, Bansky is an artist. He’s big, bold, functional, crass, and never falls into the trap of shock art for shock art’s sake. He’s clever. He’s fun (yes, art can be a lot of fun).  And most importantly, his crassness transcends mere political cartooning, to have a kind of delightful, if not slightly obvious, poignancy.  And functional/logical poignancy is something I support in any form. I like to think he personifies the movie Fight-Club (both in terms of his sensibility and effect on culture) . And like that movie he’s probably a little overblown, a little misunderstood, something I don’t full agree with, a little bit dangerous, lots of fun, and in the end, completely significant.


Don’t Like, Worst of the Decade (Music): All These Awful Followup Albums… with one band in particular.

December 11, 2009

First off, obviously there are much worse albums than any of the following I list in this little post. Lest we forget that this was a decade that saw the release of albums by Paris Hilton, Kelly Osbourne and Lindsay Lohan. I think Vanilla Ice even released an albm this decade, but I must have made that up. I’ve also talked about my “fall of western civilization signifying-band” called Brokencyde here before, so yeah… that happened.

But all these “musicians” are are obvious in their badness. The history of music is littered with these kind of feeble wannabe talents and confused cross platform ego trippers. And we get why they happen. Peopel see dollar signs and go for the imitations and possible built-in audiences. It’s heinous, but I’m more or less fine with it. Even in popularity, folks recognize the fact that these acts simply do not matter to anyone. Even anything they provide easy targets of ridicule which make us feel better about ourselves.

No, the thing that  is undoubtedly worse for music is when a good band who has made a nice splash with a good album or series of albums follows it up with a nice, hot, steaming turd.

It happens more than we’d like and it’s always disappointing. To wit, The Darkness came on the scene as an insatiably fun throwback to metal glam rock and even managed to  toss out a few songs with nice arrangement. They were a blast to see live, which is usually that special something that allows a band to grow legs beyond having a good studio album. Everything was going for them. So when they followed up that first major international album, with  “One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back”, an album so boring, repetitive, and half-assed it managed to render their “the next big thing” status into nothing more than a historical footnote. Sucks for them. Similarly, there’s the Kaiser Chiefs’s who had a nice debut entry into the neo alternative landscape with about nicely laid out brit pop album chock full of catchiness and energy. They followed it up “Yours Truly Angry Mob” which was nothing more than a pale imitation of their first album, and you can practically sense their collective desperation to find some sort of hook that even approached the quality of ANY song on their first album. It was sort of sad. Admittedly, both of these bands were sort of “of the moment” and their demise isn’t significant in the grander scheme. Call it personal dissappointment.

Of course, there here is the much more spectacular failure of Axl Rose’s “Chinese Democracy”. And I refuse to call that album a Guns and Roses album for obvious reasons. I mean seriuosly, can we just stop for a moment and reiterate exactly how much of dick you need to be to” reunite” a band with ONLY YOURSELF as the original member?!?! It’s legitimatelydick-punch worth. And it certainly makes the awfulness of “Chinese Democracy” all the more hilarious. It probably would have been much more sad were it not for the fact that the album was already a joke, having been delayed for near a decade due to sucking. It came. It went. Not even a whimper.

Eventually one comes the sad realization that there is a stunningly obvious answer to the central question at hand:

The worst album of the decade is… every single Weezer album from 2000 on.

Go back to 1999. Weezer is a much beloved band who has made an undeniable imprint on the music landscape. They strandled the transition from grunge and alternative, while never really belong to either and existing as their own unique brand of popular music. They actually embody a group of music fans, who emulated them not out of mere imitation, but because they already were like them. Even if they were evasive in personalitly, they were still beloved because of it. Oddly enough, I find it to be identification at the most honest level. By that point, even the initially tepid reception to their sophomore album Pinkerton, had finally subsided, as everyone seemed to come to their senses and realize it was a complete masterpiece. Yes it was straightforward pop rock (like all their work) but the egnimatic lyrics and slightly-more-lose arrangement created one of the more original, addictive, strange, and enjoyable records on the planet. Of course, the damage from the initial reaction may have already been done. Rivers Cuomo’s much pulbicized breakdown and public withdrawl perhaps killed his sense of fu, but that’s purely conjecture. Still, in 1999, Weezer was coming back and had a new record in the works. Their fans were collectively shitting their pants and fumbling their nerdy glasses in excitement. (I would also like to point out the fact that Star Wars fans were going through the exact same sense of excitement at that point, and were also setting themselves up for nerd related heartbreak).

Make no mistake, everything from The Green Album on fucking sucks. Believe me, over the years I’ve tried as hard as I can to truly like them. I can probably name you about fifteen songs from these albums that are fun and catchy, but I can’t do so without acknowleding their haunting generic quality as well. Sure they don’t SOUND a whole lot different from The Blue Album and Pinkerton, but where the hell is Nightcrawler? The half-japanese girls? Jonas on strike? The waterslide of escape? Where are the host of strangely-life-specific details that defined those first two records? Instead, Weezer’s work has become definied by faux badassery, generic cinecism, and irony drenched-posing. It’s hollow.

Chuck Klosterman tried to address the subject in his a great essay on weezer (and other things). I was going to link to it but it’s not online, but to paraphrase [rivers cuomo hasn’t changed at all. He has always wrote completely literal songs about things in his life and now that he’s rich and in california he’s writing about that stuff and not about playing in garages like young high school kids do]. It’s an interesting article but I think Klosterman misses one crucial point: being able to relate in music matters. It matters substantially. Rivers might still be being completely honest about his emotions, but his emotions were no long filtered through the distinct cultural references and life specifics that made him so accesible in the first place.  Plus I don’t fully buy that his songs are as honest as he things. Literal? Yes. Honest to the point of writing a heart-breaking and completely weird song dedicted to a 14 year old girl in Japan? No. Instead we get Buddy Holly ripoffs like “O Girlfriend”, which might as well BE a 50’s song. Considering that Rivers already wrote Buddy Holly, which was the perfect pop dedication to the man and trenscended the sound into the modern alternative, you can see the problem. And even the weird lyrics are unitelligible and boring. An thing that gets close just comes off more like wordy nonsense “cheese smells so good on a burnt piece of lamb” and whatever the hell “franks and beans” was saying. There is virtually nothing distinct, original, or strange in the songs of any of these albums.

And that WAS Weezer in the 90. Distinct, original, and strange. With that, I’ve come to the sad realization that I wish they never came back from that late 90’s hiatus. It’s the kind of nonsensical statement about people I will never know and have no authority over, but because music can be such a weirdly personal enterprise we feel the freedom to make it.

But still, I will be the first to admit:

I  hate Weezer, but only because I will always love Weezer.


Like, Best of the Decade Edition (Music): ILLINOIS by Sufjan Stevens… and where the hell is his next for reals album?

December 10, 2009

Note: So I wasn’t going to do the whole best of the decade thing that’s become a big fad, but what the fuck? It’s fun.

I started thinking about my favorite album of the decade at some point a few months ago and I realized something strange. I’ve sort of stopped listening to new music in the last two years. This is inordinately strange for me. I used to scour ravenously for new bands and sounds and constantly badgered my friends who had similar inclinations. And now I find myself suddenly, well, disinterested. For two years, I’ve been listening to the same music I’ve always listened to (which granted, is a metric-fuck-ton) and revisiting albums I’d left behind.  It prompted me to picture myself in the future, 20 years from now, sitting and listening to some old Flaming Lips albums the way my dad still listens to his old reggae albums on vinyl (yay Ja Spirit!). Music’s like this train that rolls right along and you can go as long as you want. But when you stop to get off, you’re off. And right now, I’m off… I’m also content with this.

This is relevant to my point for one reason, which sadly involves another tangent: If you were to ask me what my favorite album of the decade was, I would have instantly answered Radiohead’s Kid A for some self-obvious and tangible reasons. For starters, it had a profound affect on me, both in terms of taste and how I physically listen to music. I still maintain that the album serves as the great Rosetta stone for how to listen for sub-sound and sub-melody. To boot, it just sounds so god-damn advanced. Like it’s made by those gastro chefs who can turn gasoline and cake batter into a some kind of edible ice tart. Which is not to say that’s what matters it music, just that it’s an easily tangible way to identify genius. So I started constructing lists and arranging stuff in my head and just always sort of assumed Kid A would be at the top of my list.

So now then, over the last month I’ve been listening to a bunch or albums from this era that I liked, and I found myself listening to Illinois by Sufjan Stevens over and over and over (I spend a lot of time in a car and still use good old fashioned cds. I’m not a luddite it’s just my Ipod was stolen forever ago and I’m still bitter about buying a new one. That shit’s expensive). And it was like some remarkable rediscovery of the album, far from it, it was something else entirely:

I realized: I listen to Illinois all the time.

I got the album when it first came out and it has never left my car. It has never been far off my Itunes. I routinely throw songs from it on mixes. I find myself whistling little bits from it. Most of all, I write to music and and I seriously can’t think of a better album to listen to while writing. I realized I literally don’t go two weeks without listening to a song from that album, and I’m not sick of it. And it’s been five god damn years folks.

I don’t consider myself to be predisposed to liking Sufjan Stevens. There’s a kind of inherent preciousness to his music that just begs for a nice reactionary/illogical criticism. But I have no interest in playing that role. I’m highly aware that there’s already a heckuva lot of, nay unanimous critical praise for the album, but it rolls off my shoulders. I really don’t care what people think of it. It’s really good and everyone knows it’s pretty good. It’s just I’ve merely been unaware of how much I truly loved it. Debate if you will, but I have nothing invested in this argument. It’s not like I’m trying to prove why it’s good, or relevant, or lovable, or sucks, or any of that nonsense we try to do when arguing about music.

It just is.

It’s an album that’s exists out of all other contexts for me. Something I enjoy on the most basic, if largely subconscious level for so many years. Unlike Kid A, which immediately go into my head and in my heart, Illinois has done than far more impressive feat of getting in my bones.

And that’s what I think matters. I could talk to you about the intensely personal song writing, the epic tone and feeling of the music, it’s rich sense of atmosphere, it’s alternating of upbeat with aching melancholy, while often slyly fading with its use of both at once. But all that sort of feels irrelevant. Music is the most intensely personal form of art you can relate with….

And this one got me in my bones.

-mgss

Addendum:

-I went with Illinois and not “Illinoise” because it’s intentionally confusing withthe album cover/actual naming.

-SERIOUSLY, when the hell is he going to make another for real album and not some crazy mixed media thing or unreleased B sides? I’m jonesing.

-Honorable mentions:

Kid A by Radiohead – reasons aforementioned

Funeral by The Arcade Fire -I can’t think of a better debut album off the top of my head. Just amazing awe inspiring stuff.

Good News For People Who Love Bad News by Modest Mouse – sure it’s the popular album. So what? I’ve seen nothing but a long list of critics looking for reasons to include the other MM albums on their best of lists and I don’t get it. It’s great top to bottom, why can’t we acknowledge that there’s a reason this album hurled the band into the big time for a reason? I love The Moon and Antarctica too. Hell nobody love Sad Sappy Sucker more than me. So why do we have to pretend this one wasn’t even more awesome again?

Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots by The Flaming Lips – w/ this and MM, it’s the 2000s, otherwise known as when great bands that had been together for a decade got popular.

Late Registration by Kanye West – I’ve seen college dropout on more lists than this. Why? Because not as many people were into him then? There’s probably nothing more pretentious then a pretentious rant about critics being to pretentious, but seriously I don’t get this. The Jon Brion produced(!) Late Registration is just a superior, incredible album.

Others: Kala by MIA, Return to Cookie Mountain by TV on the Radio, Stankonia by Outkast, Z by My Morning Jacket, White Blood Cells by The White Stripes, Turn on the Bright Lights by Interpol, Sea Change by Beck.


Like: That Congress Is Using It’s Power For Good! THE BCS HAS HOPE (Btw, this is obviously in direct response to my blog post)

December 9, 2009

http://sports.espn.go.com/ncf/news/story?id=4727426

I got sway folks.