Apr. 11th, 2017 05:29 pm
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The first few paragraphs of The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids (1855), in which Melville goes gorgeously nuts developing atmosphere:


It lies not far from Temple Bar.

Going to it, by the usual way, is like stealing from a heated plain into some cool, deep glen, shady among harboring hills.

Sick with the din and soiled with the mud of Fleet Street--where the Benedick tradesmen are hurrying by, with ledger-lines ruled along their brows, thinking upon the rise of bread and the fall of babies--you adroitly turn a mystic corner--not a street--glide down a dim, monastic way, flanked by dark, sedate, and solemn piles, and still wending on, give the whole careworn world the slip, and, disentangled, stand beneath the quiet cloisters of the Paradise of Bachelors.

Sweet are the oases in Sahara; charming are the isle-groves of August prairies; delectable pure faith amidst a thousand perfidies; but sweeter, still more charming, most delectable, the dreamy Paradise of Bachelors, found in the stony heart of stuttering London.

In mild meditation pace the cloisters; take your pleasure, sip your leisure, in the garden waterward; go linger in the ancient library; go worship in the sculpted chapel; but little have you seen, just nothing do you know, not the sweet kernel have you tasted, till you dine among the banded Bachelors, and see their convivial eyes and glasses sparkle.


How easy it would be to oversell, to kill this in an audiobook; the rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, and syncrisis does 99% of the work for you.
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When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature there was plenty of guff about challenging the distinction between high and low art, about whether his lyrics were "good enough" to be called poetry, about what it might mean to be "waiting for a voice" instead of a text. This comes down to a division between poetry (important art) and musical lyrics (unimportant art) that, despite lip service towards oral traditions of poetry, generally finds its end in the following convenient definition (here, courtesy Dylan himself): “Anything I can sing, I call a song. Anything I can’t sing, I call a poem. Anything I can’t sing or anything that’s too long to be a poem, I call a novel."

I'd consider Joanna Newsom a poet just going by the most cursory read of her written lyrics, but here's the thing. The question is not "Can... the lyrics hold up without the music, just the words on a piece of paper?" (the form of acid test that, say, Leonard Cohen handily passes), but: is it desireable to separate them? How useful is it to exclude performance (because it is the fact of popular sound recordings being the dominant "art delivery vehicle" that is the contentious issue here) from a definition of poetry or literature?

Newsom writes allusive and complex lyrics dense with metaphor, pun and obscure references. The music that backs them is similarly complex, in time signature, melody and structure. The operation of lyric and music are, functionally, indivisible. I can't figure out how a Newsom song works until I figure out how to sing it, and this is often because of the density and surprises of her rhymes and how they dictate rhythmic structures.

Often too, meaning, metaphor, and connection are only fully awoken or active in the context of being sung, the performative twist, or the melodic or album structure. Her narratives and musical forms are circular, repetitious, and echoing (in Divers, for instance, the last song's final word is "transcend", cut off abruptly halfway into "tran"; and guess what, the first song's first word is "sending"). While an album can be likened to a poetry collection in the way its components speak to each other, an album is also a fixed performance, a statement of text's sound, and for Newsom, sound is a critical aspect of poetic language.

Taking this down to a very basic level, consider the rhymes of Goose Eggs, from Divers (2015). Newsom's sweet, mouthful vocal style may be an acquired taste (she is, of course, a weirdo, which is always to be encouraged) or initially seem like a cheap reliance on cutesiness. But once you've clicked in to her vibe, it's apparent that she puts immense effort and thought into both writing and performance. Goose Eggs demonstrates how deeply the stuff of words, of poetic meaning and correspondence, rely upon performance -- on the way she manipulates words and lines in her mouth -- instead of the written text.



Highlighted below are the two most important vowel sounds in the song, the "geese" sound (represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet as /i/) and the "goose" sound (/ʉ/ in the wild, rhyming with "moose", but the way she sings it here, it's /u/, further back in the mouth).



The most striking line, to me, is "A goose, alone, I suppose, can know the loneliness of geese" in which she bends every dominant vowel sound, the /ʉ/ of goose (and vamoose) and the /o/ of alone, suppose, know, loneliness, into a /u/, identical to the way she pronounces use, refuse and news, until we smash hard up against change, the /i/ of geese. Moreover, "suppose" is really "'spose", to preserve the scansion in which /u/ appears every other syllable.

This is a choice of performance and writing together and it has meaning. From the preceding verse /u/ has been the terminal rhyme, high and remote at the back of the mouth, associated with the past and failure, and the narrator (the singular goose) who is focussed on her work instead of relationships and the natural world. After this point the /i/ of the plural geese explodes into the song and becomes the dominant terminal and internal rhyme, as the narrator opens herself up to her and her friend's wider stories, and what they mean, and where that leaves them.

(I particularly love the choice of "Vs", the flight patterns of flocks of geese, as an /i/ rhyme).

Again, this is a choice. The sound often occurs with an unvoiced /s/ (as in "geese" and "recently") and she regularly ignores final consonants (there's no t in "east", apparently). Similarly, you /yʉ/ (which typically rhymes with goose, ie "you silly goose") is avoided, turned into ya /yä/ or y' /yə/ where necessary.

This attention to using words for the way they sound is everywhere. Newsom commonly inserts rapid internal rhymes in her lyrics: built/stilled, train/plain, learn/burn, and so on. The final stanza has a great example of this in her California vowel shift (/ɑ/ becomes /ɔ/) that turns talk, cause, and flock into rhymes. These rhymes also rely on the unreleased velar stop of /k/ that is also associated with /o/ in other verses (spoke, broken); an /o/ that also determinedly features in the manipulated lines "had to go/ and you caught that flight out of Covalo/ Now, overhead.."

The song (and her entire oeuvre) is filled with moments like this, that wouldn't "work" in the same way as plain words on plain paper would, read by anyone anywhere. Listen to the way she trebles the /ɛ/ sound in "at last (at least)": /ɛt lɛst ɛt list/. In my normal spoken accent, this doesn't occur, and the relationship between "last" and "least" is diminished, where the /a/ in last is a wide open sound that happens in the middle of the mouth, instead of the more frontal and constricted /ɛ/ and /i/.

The "written text" definition of poetry prioritises multiplicity over fixity, the privacy of language, the internal and reading process and the alchemy by which another's words become one's own. In this sense, it sets the reader above the author, that heralded New Criticism democratisation, and one of the great recuperating claims Literature makes for being not irrelevant -- it is high art because it is of the people, you see: the idea that Dylan is the voice of the commoner, the downtrodden, the people, is no small part of how he got away with the Nobel.

But there is also power in hearing the author, the poet herself. Goose Eggs contains an arrogant authorial request: listen to me, the way I want to say it. I picture Newsom singing as she writes, pen in hand, looping spirographic connections between words and stanzas and songs as she manipulates phonetic and morphemic correspondences, references, and doublings. While it's relatively common for celebrated lyricists to put out collections of their lyrics as little books of poetry, and I could not object to Newsom for doing so, it almost seems beside the point: this is a literature and an exploration of language that's meant to be heard, not read.
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The voice, the look, and the gait are all critical to any performance of Quentin Crisp, of course. The walk, defiant but contained. John Hurt appears to not think twice about any of it. The full force of his intelligence goes not into mimicry but into the trap between performance and body that is Crisp. The pain -- physical and existential -- is real and the performance of feminine masculinity is both its catalyst and the defence against it. He becomes a self that is always exposed, so that no exposure can be done to him.

Instead making mimicry effortful Hurt leaves voice, gait and posture to being. This is the only way his body knows how to move, as Crisp. His eyes are glued to the sergeant as he jogs over, ready to be commanded, confronted, denigrated. It is thoughtless, wonderful, selfless, memorable. RIP.

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5 minutes: "Concrete" is so obviously code for "cocaine."

10 minutes: This kid actor is a bit much, they really need to get him off and put Ruth Wilson on.

15 minutes: Oh Christ not Andrew Scott.

22 minutes: Wait, he's actually talking about concrete.

27 minutes: These calls are coming pretty fast but I can't really see how they can maintain the tension. In Phonebooth at least a dude was shooting at Colin Farrell.

34 minutes: he's gonna have to crash or something to give this an actual endpoint.

40 minutes: Look at him chugging cough medicine. that's how it'll happen.

45 minutes: "CALL WAITING" HOOOOOOLLLYY SHIIIIIIIITTTTT JUST GOT REAL OHH NOOOOO

53 minutes: Scott's loyalty and ordinariness is really quite sweet.

62 minutes: has he been driving the speed limit this whole time????

65 minutes: there is literally no other substance on earth more appropriate to this man's personality than concrete. He's if like Mr Stevens out of Remains of the Day got to keep all of Sonny Wortzik's promises about taking care of everything.

70 minutes: I think....the dude...just has...a cold...

76 minutes: I'm just so happy about the way this thing with Scott and Hardy ended I want to die.

83 minutes: how is it possible that Tom Hardy listening to his kid's voicemail about a football game is the climax of the movie and it works.


Camerawork too floaty and dependent on reflections, fuzzy lights. Editing too excitable. But a marvel of structure and screenwriting and performance and what the DoP misses in lighting the world he makes up for in his subtle and non-subtle lighting of Hardy's face. The play between minor victories and major roadblocks is impressive and involving. Viewer expectations are managed perfectly. And it is so rare for stories to rely wholly on the tensions of decency and competence; for a plot to hinge on a person's personality and identity and not be a revenge or crusade flick. For that reason alone it's worth a look.
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There's the stuff ("the same old fucking three songs" according to some) that I listen to constantly, and then there's the rest of it. The rest of it gets a look-in via the shuffle though, and with insistent regularity a song I haven't paid much attention to will sneak right up and brick me. The only thing to do then is to listen to it on repeat 1000x until it's out of my system and shift it through to regular rotation.

Currently: Fugazi's Ex-Spectator (The Argument, 2002)



Tight and melodic. Two drum sets in unison. Smothering first verse, sneaky bass and guitar making promises. Bass and guitar running the same riff in the bridge - a pause before the whole thing explodes into the chorus riff. That is a great fucking apocalyptic chorus riff. Turn up this live version, which builds in intensity at the end until the whole edifice almost collapses.
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We went west, camping. This was the second time. The first time we went east, down the Great Ocean Road, up into the highlands, out into the hay plains. We were in the middle of breaking up. She was very sad, and I was very remote.

This time was a couple of years later. We were back together. She was still sad; or sad again. Newly, desperately sad, starting after we'd made the plans. She didn't want to go. I drove us out of town with a decided optimism as firm-set and grasped-at as the road.

Our first night was in Port Augusta, only three and a half hours from home. We had forgotten how to raise a tent. There was no grass, just hard red rocky dirt. We argued, frustrated and feeling foolish, bending the tent pegs, groundsheet flapping. It was the windiest night in years, they said. The sky was black.

We had brought a laptop and paid extra for power, because not to have access to some of our rituals and routines of comfort would have been a dealbreaker, but in the end she didn't want to watch anything. The tent was rattling and it was cold. Her brain was too loud. She put her headphones on. It was still early. I thought that tomorrow she would ask to go home.

I put on Bill Cunningham New York with an optimism shading more into the desperate and foreboding. After a few minutes, she took off her headphones, and I started it again.

She likes gentle people. She likes people who endure, and smile, and be themselves, and have love to spare. People who care for others, who are creative in a way that doesn't register to her as pretentious. Anyone over the age of seventy-five melts her. She swooned for Bill Cunningham.

Bill Cunningham revolutionised celebrity photography and fashion photography, sharp and focussed as a laser when it came to capturing how the people of New York wore and lived their clothes. He was an eccentric who lived with eccentrics, if by eccentric you mean someone who does not follow the typical patterns and aesthetics of modern life. He had no partner. He was a mystery even to colleagues and friends who had known him for decades. He was small, and by the time of the documentary gaining a geriatric bend and weariness and medical regime, but he was still quick-witted and surprisingly agile when his photography called for it. He wore the same clothes every day. He rode his bicycle (make that bicycles: they had been stolen by the dozens) everywhere he needed to go. He had a boyhood and a past he didn't like to talk about. He didn't like to talk about himself, or even really his driving purpose in life. He wanted to hold the camera, and point it out, towards the thousands of people he saw daily, in the offices of the New York Times, in the ballroom parties and galas of the elite, in the crowds on the street.

In Bill Cunningham New York he is obviously uncomfortable being inside the frame instead of outside of it, except for those times when he forgets himself in his work, running out into the road to capture a pattern or shape or texture as it strolls past. But he smiles and jokes and puts up with the reversal, maintaining scepticism that he himself and his approach to his calling could be of interest, could speak as loudly about humanity as the photographs he took.

He thought himself boring, and he wasn't interested in boring people, people who wore the right clothes the right way, the most expensive dress. He was interested in people who were being themselves, who brought their personality to bear on their material lives, whose eyes could transform the ordinary, who appeared to show us that just being alive and being creatively yourself was the first and most fundamental step.

This was, of course, a quaint and terrifically endearing blind spot. We were both in love with him by the five-minute-mark, blown far away from the wind and the worry and the sadness. I've always been grateful to him for that. It turned out to be a good holiday.

Last month, we happened to watch the documentary Iris, about another New York fashion eccentric Iris Apfel, also up there in age. Bill appeared, inevitably, in this documentary too; and so afterwards we rewatched Bill Cunningham New York (realising at that point that Iris Apfel also featured in this film), and were gladdened and warmed by his quick quiet spirit all over again.

He passed away yesterday at the age of 87.

"Who will we dress for now?" ask the fashionistas and moguls of New York: being snapped by Bill at a party was never guaranteed or to be taken for granted, and to impress him was often the goal. He did not want to sit in the front rows of the fashion shows, preferring to hear the unguarded chatter of those relegated to the back. His days mostly were spent in the streets, looking for people, for art.

To have an eye that judges without being judgemental; to be gentle; to be honest; to be loyal; to be unimpressed by status; to work hard; to know truthfully one's own talent, and passion, and to pursue it with a firm hand but no overriding ego; to refuse money for money's sake; to be alive to the world; to have a sense of history; to value the unconventional; to know there is difficulty and sorrow and still search for beauty; to be generous with smiles and genuine with praise. In Bill Cunningham New York he seems to touch the lives of everyone in the city, just by being there to witness them. It's a sorrow to lose a person like that.

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goddamn this is the best version for the way it sticks Coleman Hawkins in your left ear and Monk in your right and just makes that happen to you. Smooth and soft and cool as hell.

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Meek's Cutoff (dir. Kelly Reichardt) isn't too interested in telling you what's happened, what's happening, or what's going to happen. We join a group of pilgrims as they are already, under the advice of their guide Meek, too committed to a "shortcut" to the promised land in the west to turn back. Water drops lower in the barrels. Wagon axles break. Tensions rise. They keep walking. Meek keeps boasting. There is no certainty that they are not heading directly towards their ends.

And then halfway through they find, perhaps, a new guide to fresh water, perhaps, who may, perhaps, know more than Mr Meek, on account of being a local. Or he may also, perhaps, be leading them to their doom, on account of being tied up, held at gunpoint, and called a heathen; and also being subject to the continual violent expansion of settlers across the west.

Well, they don't know who to trust, and neither do we. But they've gone too far, and they gotta move in some direction. Call it optimism, exhaustion, instinct, luck, prejudice, foolishness. Faith. Not blind faith but an aware and alive faith with active investment in the absence of certainty, the ineluctable gap between the knowable and the unknowable, the impossibility of resolution. It is all too clear that it could all be for naught; and at the end waits death, or at least 100 minutes of wasted time.

As pilgrims, they may be quite used to the problem and effort of faith. They pick a man and a direction, and keep walking.



In wide unbroken shots they trudge through the desert and dry hills, skirts fluttering, guiding cattle, looking sad. There is a very strange and unconvincing hollowness to the endless amounts of doing and being that are done and been onscreen. The actors are obviously enduring something unfun, but they all of them except Rod Rondeaux (who creates mystery with ease and precision) and Will Paxton (whose stoic patience and inherent goodness are almost too much) appear to be playacting.

Michelle Williams as Emily is the main moral and intellectual ground upon which the problem of not-knowing plays out. Her round face, with its perfectly-manicured eyebrows and natural troubled pout, is all wrong for this thin harsh story. She is very carefully dirty. Her wide eyes fix on objects and people without appearing to process thoughts about them. Her best moment (for my money the most exciting and characterful moment in the movie) is simply her shooting and laboriously reloading a rifle -- loading shot, packing wadding, loading gunpowder -- that plays out for a full minute. Williams has obviously practiced and repracticed this action, and the urgency of the moment comes through in the familiarity and smoothness of her motions.



For some reason, walking and gesturing does not appear to be as familiar to these actors as shooting a 150-year-old gun or shaping a new axle out of a tree trunk. Bruce Greenwood as Meek is swamped by a ridiculous beard and fringed jacket and, denied any revealing closeups, appears to have forgotten how to move convincingly in long shot, awkward in his clothes. Costumes are important. One of the great pleasures of Westerns is watching actors use their hats to mess with their sightlines (Brokeback Mountain is an aria sung in hat-brims) and the three women in Meek's Cutoff are gifted with deep bonnets that function like horse blinkers, literally tunnelling their vision forwards; but nobody seems to realise how crucial this is thematically or practically.

With her aversion to closeups and her use of the 4:3 ratio Reichardt works almost as hard as her actors to keep us at a distance. The naturalism of Blauvelt's photography and the length of the shots encourage observation, looking at. She makes the labour visible, and withholds the emotion.

This cripples these actors, who are required to domesticate and naturalise the stark difference of time and place through repetitive doing; to give the film's mysteries a purpose, to live us into the struggle and effort of faith. And sure, you can hinge a movie's structure on the question of faith, but you gotta do the rest yourself. Faith will give you a direction but it will not do the walking for you. And it is in the doing -- which is the entirety of the action onscreen: walking, kneading bread dough, watching, walking, patting donkeys, running, gathering wood, knitting, walking -- where Meek's Cutoff cannot connect, cannot turn concrete action into the stuff that makes the faith meaningful.
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A very strong memory.

My first year of undergrad. Dog-sitting for my aunt at her new place, on the other side of town from where I had lived my whole life. Far away from everyone, in a rougher area. '30s-style bungalow, thick brick walls and a deep porch. Trucks on the road outside.

Second night, Saturday night. Doing the readings for a lecture on the harm argument against pornography. A lot of material from the eighties. A lot of Dworkin and McKinnon. A lot of statistics. A lot of descriptions of violent and illegal pornography. Putting my jacket on. Turning the light on. Calling the dogs inside, feeding them. Locking the windows. Checking the doors. Descriptions of abuse and assault. Women getting beaten, penetrated with knives. Girls being assaulted. Girls being kidnapped. Women turned into objects. Helplessness.

Late in the evening. Surfacing and eating something, an ice cream? Checking the doors. Putting a kitchen knife on the bedside table. Turning off all the lights. Checking the windows. Calling the dogs into the bedroom. Turning the TV on to Rage, just starting. Smoking a cone. Coiling down into the quilt. Cross Bones Style comes on, hypnotic and understanding and comforting. I wished it could have gone on forever.

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Plenty (PLENTY) of pictures below, but first a small digression on the point of design. This is a movie I saw early and often. Its pictures and sounds are in my bones. It's gorgeous, captivating, elemental; the second weirdest movie in the entire Disney animated canon, and one of the most phenomenally beautiful movies ever made. And more than any other Disney animated picture it is driven by its design in a way that echoes the slightly displaced and eerie, otherworldly and familiar, quality of a good fairytale myth. (And that's not even touching on its music, its character design, its sound design, and its voice acting, which deserve a post of their own).



Lady and the Tramp had been a financial success and Disney, whose boundary-pushing and adventurous Fantasia was over a decade in the past, wanted to pull together something just as astounding and even more beautiful, a moving illustration, a holistic artistic achievement as adventurous and revolutionary as Fantasia, but that also harkened back to the princess narratives of his early successes. And, fuck it, he thought. He'd tried widescreen with Lady and the Tramp and it worked out. Why not film in Super Technirama this time, printing in 70mm and requiring his artists work on bigger canvases, with more detail.

Mary Blair was one of Disney's favourite artists, who often contributed conceptual art to his movies and shorts in the 40s and 50s. Her art was angular, graphic and abstracted -- her work for the Cinderella story book is vastly different to the screen version. Her style is obvious in Once Upon a Wintertime, in the vivacious, bold and friendly backgrounds (the character design, unfortunately, departs starkly from her aesthetic, and is far less successful), and the angular horses (a clear predecessor of Sleeping Beauty's horses).

Disney wanted something as adventurous and modern and design-driven as her work but as iconic and ageless as The Hunt of the Unicorn. At the same time, Disney was distracted by his other dream project, building Disneyland. So, he delegated.

Disney gave Eyvind Earl, a tremendously talented background artist obsessed with "infinite detail within detail," an unusual amount of control over the look of the film -- enough power even to override successful character animators like Marc Davis. You can get a look at Earl (and Marc Davis), in this delightfully stilted and earnest Disney short film shot during the making of Sleeping Beauty, which unfortunately I cannot embed but which is well worth a look.

Earl drew, design-wise, from several sources: the castles and strong vertical compositions of medieval gothic painting; the stiffness, flatness and narrative of medieval tapestries; the costuming, landscaping and regulation of medieval illumination, particularly duc de Barry's Book of Hours; and the detailed and delicate florals, the geometry and layered perspectives of 15th/16thC Persian miniatures.


Pliny, study, and landscape - Andrea di Firenze, 1457


Yusuf and Zulaiikha - Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād, 1488

Also he decided to just go ahead and draw trees like a fucking weirdo, albeit with some precedent:


Early medieval landscape by an unkown miniaturist

Earl's great trick here was taking Charles Perrault's post-Renaissance/pre-Romantic Sleeping Beauty fable and giving the big middle finger to Renaissance perspectivalism and Romantic emotion. This is a simple story, with simple, stilted characters, with a known and unavoidable beginning, middle and end, and its princesses and fairytale rhythms are familiar; but its exteriors sometimes verge on the uncanny, with flat, skewed planes and multiple vanishing points, and its interiors are cavernous empty vaulted stone rooms or close and cluttered cottages and cages.

This is a stiff unyielding world of monarchy, betrothment, good and evil. A world in which a sixteen-year-old can grow in grace and beauty, beloved by all who know her and have that mean something, because beauty has metaphysical, quantifiable weight, an ordered place in the universe. Prophecy is a natural fit for this kind of world, because everything is static, and everything is cyclical, and what is spoken must be done.

And yet prophecy too, as inevitable as it seems, has gaps that can be exploited and mitigated, with great effort. This is Earl's other great trick: to infuse all of his medieval-era influences with the brash angularity of modernism and mid-century graphic design, with bizarre disruptive interludes of bird cutouts swimming woozily in song, with negative-image lightning flashes, with scare cuts and zooms on gargoyles and Aurora's body, with the queasy colouring of Maleficent's castle and the pink/blue smoosh of Aurora's dress, with extreme high or low angles, with a climax that dissolves geography and space into a nightmare haze of fire and clashing teeth.


a break-your-phone number of caps )

Stateliness and grace; elegance and weight; terror and peace; modernity and timelessness; violence and sleep; prophecy and disruption; detail and expanse; order and chaos. These tensions, and the sheer impeccability and beauty of their execution, are what keeps Sleeping Beauty feeling so vital and unique, over fifty years after its (unceremonious and expensive) release. Indeed, that its weakest sequence is its abrupt and empty-feeling final minute shows how little-suited Sleeping Beauty is to soothing and resolving tension. It's too strange for that; there is too much alive in its images.
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Don't think I can create any kind of thesis on this one and tbh it's fading kinda fast so some brief thoughts:

- Commits the unforgivable sin of being unable to photograph the gorgeous and talented Sterling K Brown with enough light and clarity to allow us to see the bottom half of his face. If The Wire can photograph dark-skinned, bearded men in that ugly-as-hell institutional lighting so can you. This was something I just cannot get past. I love this actor and wanted to see him ACT.

- Wonderful performances across the board but I particularly enjoyed watching John Travolta and David Schwimmer. Travolta's physicality is delightful and funny and pathetic and Schwimmer's arc held the true heart of the story for me, because I think it fumbled its other raison d'etres. Schwimmer's doleful eyes and gradually dawning horror were my favourite things to see on screen. Cuba was also stunningly pathetic and hateful and his vocal work was superb.

- I found the photographs of Simpson and Goldman that appeared at the end of the final episode in bad taste. These are the dead bodies that the this sensationalistic multi-million-dollar earner for FX is built on, so in that sense it is appropriate, but I don't think the series really cared too much about them.

- In fact I think this show was very confused about what it wanted to be. Realism, melodrama, naturalism, romance, thriller. The one thing it wasn't was nerdy or procedural, which might have saved it and pulled it away from sensationalism. It's not illuminating any fundamental truths about the OJ case, the justice system, or the media. I really, really wanted to feel Clarke and Darden's relationship in my soul but it developed so herky-jerky I didn't know where they were with each other from scene to scene. I don't feel like it carried Cochrane's story strongly enough to have his great moral victory -- an indictment of the racist LA Police -- counterpoint his simultaneous great moral loss -- the travesty of OJ's acquittal.

- Somehow, because she is an amazing actress, Paulson managed to find new ways to convey every time the trauma and surprise of the rug being pulled from under her. But still, the effort put into using dramatic irony to beat this woman back to the ground every time she staggered onto her feet felt sadistic and pointless.

- So of course these things happened, like her naked photos being published. But if part of the story is about the evil media and all the suckers watching -- if I were one of those thousands of viewers glued to the screen for months on end, speculating endlessly about her hair, and her mistakes, and the prosecution's mistakes -- if part of it is about problematising watching and what that does to the watchers, what does it mean then to watch this show? If I get to empathise with Clarke and her sob story and difficulties -- doesn't that let me off the hook? Aren't I now just the enlightened viewer of Quality Television? Great. So what's on next?
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Harvey is a nice light little movie, imperfectly made, with a major piece of miscasting (Sanderson) and some directorial stiffness (although Koster certainly succeeds where the '72 version fails). What it does have is Jimmy Stewart giving a wonderful performance in a very tricky role that blends melancholy and happiness so sweetly and unassumingly that even though the ending is a happy one I was left with a great mixed feeling of joy and sorrow.

Happy-Go-Lucky is the only other movie right now that I can think of that attempts something like Harvey -- a protagonist who is unceasingly cheery and NICE, at beginning and end of film -- but even H-G-L contains internal character conflict and unhappiness -- a journey. Elwood, in contrast, does not do the one thing that a protagonist is SUPPOSED to do, which is, change. He does not change at all. He is the catalyst for change in other peoples' lives, and he would be a very curious, tipsy void at the centre of the film if it were not for Jimmy Stewart.

Without an arc to play, Stewart instead plays to a reveal -- not the "Harvey is real" thing and certainly not the holy fool morality of the end, but the reveal in his centerpiece monologue outside of Charlie's bar, to Sanderson and Kelly, of his meeting with Harvey. Because we're way ahead of the other characters when it comes to wanting Elwood to stay Elwood and not be psychoanalysed or medicated into mundanity, to lose the thing that made him special, we're vested in seeing his "delusion" as something sweet and essentially harmless.

But in this monologue Stewart -- without ever ONCE tipping his hand, or playing to any melancholy -- reveals the depth of Elwood's potential sorrow, the emptiness and meaninglessness that is held at bay by Harvey, and the active choice he makes to be pleasant over smart (read: cynical or beholden to social pressure). He used to be able to dance; he doesn't dance any more, but he does make friends, and he does go out into the world.




ELWOOD:
I used to know a whole lot of dances. The, uh, flea hop, and--and the, what's the -- the black bottom, the varsity drag. I don't know, I just don't seem to have any time any more. I have so many things to do.

KELLY:
What is it you do, Mr Dowd?

ELWOOD:
Oh, Harvey and I sit in the bars, and have a drink or two, and play the jukebox. And soon the faces of all the other people, they turn toward mine, and they smile. And they're saying, we don't know your name, mister, but you're a very nice fella. Harvey and I warm ourselves on all these golden moments.




Who would he be if he couldn't warm himself on these moments?

And it's this that sits under the rest of the film, and makes us love him so tremendously, when he's giving Dr Chumley such good advice, when he's at risk of being medicated, when it looks like Harvey might stay behind. You only want good things to happen to him -- not because he's so so pleasant, but because his pleasantness is a choice, and because his life was not so so pleasant, once, and the beauty in his soul and the generosity and forgiveness he brings to the world deserves return in kind.

What Stewart brings to this performance is the knowledge not simply that joy and sorrow exist on a continuum, and that we can't know the one without having known the other; but that a pure and perfect, lived-in joy is often tinged with sorrow, or grief. When I think of my loved ones -- when I turn inside and try to capture without thought the feeling they invoke in me, the love I feel is tinged with a kind of pain. That mixed feeling, that joy tinged with melancholy that makes the joy shine brighter, is what Stewart is playing, and is what I felt seeing him shamble through the gates, over the rise and into the sunset.
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ILSA:
Strange. I know so very little about you.

RICK (chuckles):
I know very little about you. Just the fact you had your teeth straightened.

ILSA:
But be serious, darling, you are in danger. You must leave Paris.

RICK:
No no no, we must leave.

ILSA:
Yes, of course, we.

RICK:
Now the train for Marseilles leaves at five o'clock. I'll pick you up at your hotel at four-thirty.

ILSA:
No, no, not at my hotel, I -- I have things to do in the city before I leave. I'll meet you at the station.

RICK:
All right, at a quarter to five. Say, why don't we get married at Marseilles?

ILSA:
Oh...no, that--that's too far ahead to plan.

RICK:
Yes, I guess it is a little too far ahead. Let's see, what about the engineer? Why can't he marry us on the train?

ILSA (voice shaking):
Oh, darling.

RICK (laughs):
Why not?




Bergman's hand gesture here slays me. I suspect she might actually be corpsing, but anyway, to hide her face from the camera is a genius move, along with that stunning voicework -- Ilsa is too overwhelmed by heartbreak to exist even for us.

Another thing: people didn't think Bogart had the chops to be a romantic lead before this. But he sets Rick up for a fall so perfectly -- you can tell it's love that keeps him buoyant in Paris (laughs), and you can believe he'd do anything as the embittered Rick of Casablanca.
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Tolstoy on power, logic, and pathological self-belief, 100 years ago:

But, even though he was convinced that he had acted as he ought, he was left with some sort of unpleasant aftertaste, and, to stifle that feeling, he began thinking about something that always soothed him: what a great man he was.

.......

Despite the fact that the plan of a slow movement into enemy territory by means of cutting down the forests and destroying provisions was the plan of Ermolov and Velyaminov, and the complete opposite of Nicholas's plan, according to which it was necessary to take over Shamil's residence at once and devastate that nest of robbers, and according to which the Dargo expedition of 1845 had been undertaken, at the cost of so many human lives -- despite that, Nicholas also ascribed to himself the plan of slow movement, the progressive cutting down of forests, and the destruction of provisions. It would seem that, in order to believe the plan of slow movement, the cutting down of forests and the destruction of provisions was his plan, it would be necessary to conceal the fact that he had precisely insisted on the completely opposite military undertaking of the year forty-five. But he did not conceal it and was proud of both his plan of the expedition of the year forty-five and of the plan of slow movement forward, despite the fact that these two plans obviously contradicted each other. The constant, obvious flattery, contrary to all evidence, of the people around him had brought him to the point that he no longer saw his contradictions, no longer conformed his actions and words to reality, logic, or even simple common sense, but was fully convinced that all his orders, however senseless unjust, and inconsistent with each other, became sensible, just, and consistent with each other only because he gave them.


Hadji Murat, 1912
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Captive Prince V3 came out last month -- long-awaited and very enjoyable and satisfying. Satisfying, however, in a significantly different manner to the first two books, and in a manner that pushes my buttons a little less. What I miss in it most is the sense, pervasive in the first two books, of an organising mind -- Laurent's mind, and the author's. Pacat was tremendously skillful in developing a narrator that is not so much unreliable as unknowledgeable. That would be the point of view character, Damen, who is plunged deep into the deadly political intrigue of a rival foreign country, and spends the first two books in desperate catch-up mode.

During those books it becomes apparent that initial antagonist Laurent's story is buried inside the tight perspective Damon's own story. It exists in observations that Damen or can't fully understand, or wilfully misunderstands; in events that colour past words or actions retrospectively; in surprises and slow puzzlings out of character deed and motivation. Every time Damen turns a corner on his understanding of Laurent and his environment, the foundations of our assumptions and prejudices crumble a little more, and we get a marginally clearer glimpse of the long game that Laurent is, and has always been, playing.

One of the cleverest things Pacat manages to do -- genius-level stuff -- is to run Damen's and the reader's levels of knowledge at different speeds. The reader -- cued by genre clues, mostly -- is running a few steps ahead of Damen at most points. And yet we still can only know what Damen knows, and seemingly inconsequential moments like the reveal of an earring as a disguise come as momentous, emotional, characterful shocks. Pacat manages that trickiest of things -- to have a Laurent's tremendous intelligence and competence actually feel like a living, realistic intelligence, organising the narrative behind the scenes without trickery or crutch, and she keeps it so, even on reread. This was, honestly, a revelatory pleasure for me.

By V3 most of the tension created by an unknowledgeable narrator has been settled: reader and Damen has much better handle on Laurent and the true antagonists. The reveals of V3 are correspondingly smaller and less undermining; it contains a narrative "cheat" POV switch; Laurent's interim plans reach fruition; romantic desire has been satisfied, although there is still a good level of tension; and, perhaps most crucially, the two major secrets that continue to underpin the emotional stakes are essentially resolved in the reader's mind, and are unavailable for the same kind of destabilising shock.

Laurent is still, of course, a genius, and legitimately reads so, but the third novel is organised around Damen's ascendency and power, and his is a much more straightforward, A-to-B, enduring kind of power, and the texture of the narrative follows accordingly. The plot(s) and characters remain twisty and complicated, but Damen is the one in the know now, and while it is immensely satisfying to see him and Laurent renegotiate their relationship and kick ass, that "uncharted territory" pleasure is missing, that feeling of you and Damen matching your wits against Pacat and Laurent both.

All three books are an incredible achievement, and Pacat is very generous about passing on some of the lessons she's learned. I've reread the first two several times and look forward to going over the third again to marvel at just how she does what she does. I've been thinking a lot about unreliable narrators lately, and the way she manipulates information, context and assumption just blows me away. Do check her out.
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Ute Lemper is best known for her cabaret and Kurt Weill interpretations. She has a huge, throaty, theatrical voice, with tremendous range and an obvious delight in characterisation and irony. This song, Scope J, comes from an album called Punishing Kiss, of covers and songs written specially for her by contemporary artists such as Nick Cave, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Philip Glass, and Neil Hannon. As might be expected this is a very melodramatic album about breakups, whores, bars, Berlin, drinking, cobblestone streets, and murder.

And then at the end is Scope J. Most of the album is backed by The Divine Comedy and arranged by Jody Talbot. Most of the album is about concrete characters and familiar cabaret situations. But Scott Walker wrote Scope J, and Scott Walker arranged arranged Scope J. It contains a bizarre bridge in which she mutters Herbert Ponting's The Sleeping Bag. It is, very darkly, funny, and it is, unsurprisingly, Fucking Weird. It is the Scott Walker of Tilt and The Drift. Most reviews of Punishing Kiss singled it out either for high praise or for mystified what-the-fuckery.

Lemper, who is a "theatre uber alles" kind of gal, and loves Scott Walker for his theatricality, has confessed that even she doesn't know what this avant-garde piece exactly means. It was very difficult for her to perform, and a very internal song. A very still and chilly song in which sunlight glints off of snowbanks in the high tinkle of windchimes and violins scream about death.

Lemper has a huge range, and could convey a Walkerish, baritonish feel if she wanted -- like on The Drift's Jesse, perhaps. But she has the power and control to hit the clouds, competing with the violins and guitars without sounding in the least shrill. She sounds, frankly, like she's come from another realm.

What realm? With its references to Russia we are put not as much in mind of Ponting's Arctic but Tolstoy's snowblind Russia of Master and Man, in which "snow fell from above and at times rose up from below"; the kind of other-space on which meaning and objects either dissolve or overwhelm in their significance, and you come up hard against the limits of physical and metaphysical experience:



Vassily Andreich rushed after him, but the snow was so deep and the coats on him were so heavy that each leg sank over the knee, and, having gone no more than twenty steps, he got out of breath and stopped. "The woods, the wethers, the rent, the shop, the pot-houses, the house and barn with the iron roofs, the heir," he thought, "what will become of it all? What is this? It can't be!" flashed in his head. And for some reason he recalled the wind-tossed wormwood, which he had passed twice, and such terror came over him that he did not believe in the reality of what was happening to him. He thought: "Isn't it all a dream?" and wanted to wake up, but there was nowhere to wake up in. This was real snow that lashed him in the face, and poured over him, and felt cold on his right hand, the glove for which he had lost, and this was a real waste, in which he now remained alone, like that wormwood, awaiting an inevitable, speedy, and senseless death.



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All you gotta do to get me is have characters who can't look at each other but desperately want to. EMOTION! Great trick for an actor to pull off, to be hyperconscious of another person.









And of course...
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I was just gonna present these without comment but I'll never get over how well-made this movie is. Tremors (1990, dir. Ron Underwood, DOP. Alexander Gruszynski) is sharp and funny, and introduces absolutely everything you need to know about its premise and characters within ten minutes. It never moves at anything less than a cracking pace. Fred Ward has some golden broad comic beats to go with his crunchy broad face and Kevin Bacon, who is introduced taking a piss and pulling his undies out of his arse, sells the hell out of every second of his moments of alarm and victory.

The script by Brent Maddock and S. S. Wilson is a study in narrative economy: every secondary character introduction speaks volumes and every gag is an organic set-up for something of narrative significance later -- who's got the lighter, who wins rock-paper-scissors, Bacon taking it personally that McIntyre's not a green-eyed blonde with perfect breasts. It's very easy to enjoy this one on its own terms -- no need for the irony and distance that a lot of cult classics might require.

It's also WAY prettier than it has any goddamn right to be. These are not the kind of visuals you expect out of a creature-feature comedy from the exact group of people who brought you Short Circuit. These are Western shots; romance shots; comedy shots. They bring it scope and intimacy and humour.

It knows how to use scenery and it knows how to use faces and it knows how to place people in the screen -- Underwood is so good at framing in this movie. In the standoff in Perfection he often keeps one beroofed character in the background while another character is working in the foreground; the screen is alive with action and tension but it's never distracting. He keeps dirt (sorry, Pleistocene alluvials) in just about every shot, and dust is caked on windows, shirts, is always puffing up around people or dangerously in the distance. The sets are all practical, allowing shots through windows, all built in that extraordinary valley, with mountains looming in the background, at first trapping them, and then offering safety.

So just about every shot, apart from being gorgeous, carries multiple strands of narrative, character, and spatial information; and Underwood never misses a chance to use the camera for a visual gag either -- Bacon's burst of hair as he hangs upside down -- the reveal of Burt and Heather's gun wall -- pull back from a closeup of an object over Bacon's and Ward's shoulders to reveal how far they have to go to get to it -- Bacon running almost offscreen and screaming I GOT A GODDAMN PLAN over his shoulder like a madman.

Here are some of my favourite shots:



Broke into the wrong goddamn rec room didn't you you bastard! )
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A rough guess and anecdotal evidence suggests that A Woman A Man Walked By is in the bottom tier of most people's personal PJ Harvey album rankings. It is a weird one. John Parish wrote the music and sent it to Harvey in a couple of batches. She then either wrote lyrics or matched already written lyrics to the music, figured out how to sing them, and sent them back for approval. He approved just about all of it and they put the album together.

As a result it is very much an album of individual songs -- "individual worlds," Harvey calls them, each demanding a different approach. The range is shocking on first and subsequent listens. Black Hearted Love is a pure perfect rock song and her voice is powerful, melancholy and sexy. Pig Will Not is snarling rage. Cracks in the Canvas is spoken word. The Soldiers presages the eerie delicate falsetto she experiments with in White Chalk.

Each piece of music demanded of her that she seek out a new way to use her voice, to turn it into the right instrument for each song. She would try different voices, create different characters, working at different ways of singing. In the end, each song, between music, lyric and voice, finds the way it "has to be." For her, co-writing this album was a matter of working at it until she reached the limits of what she was able to do with her voice sylistically, emotionally, and, fascinatingly, physically.

April is a standout track. Imagine first listening to that quiet moan of organ and drums and thinking, what I need to do now is sing ugly. A squeaky, croaky tilting warble like I have no technique at all. She has no vanity.

Aside from the brainworks, if you have vocal chords, a pair of lungs, and a mouth you can sing. In the clip below of her (and Parish & Co) performing April live I am amazed by two things:

1. That croak in her voice during the bulk of the song is vocal fry. What you are hearing is the physical fact of her vocal folds vibrating and allowing air to pass through irregularly. Vocal fry is a pretty common sylistic tool in singing - the most famous example is Britney's characteristic "oh baby baby." It's easiest to hit on low notes (metal vocalists use it a lot too) and can lend a sexy feel to vocals when used judiciously. What you never hear is someone using it for a whole song and to pitch it up in the clouds. Not only is it super weird and unsexy it is DIFFICULT and requires a ton of technique and control. Try and sing "oh baby baby" over and over again a couple of octaves up and see how hard it is.

2. She spends most of the song tense, repressed, and internally focussed. When the music rises and she belts out the climax her shoulders drop and her mouth opens wide and her tongue flattens and bends to make those vowels as strong as possible. You can see it changing shape in the middle of words, reaching up to tap the back of her teeth to make a t. Pure phonetics, stretched to extremes in service of emotion and character.



To be clear this is not just how "how PJ Harvey sings." In that same session for the elaborate hide-and-seek song Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen she waves her arms, laughs, yips, ducks out of view, tosses her head about as characters call from different sides of the garden.



It is not enough to sing the right words at the right pitch in the right order. Your voice comes from your body; she creates the emotion in her posture, her throat, the physical facts of her body. A song like April is ONLY successful if she can deliver it right, which would be, for most people, an impossibility. She is a genius.

ARF

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