(from Superwest, by Massimo Mattioli, 1987)
Monthly Archives: February 2011
Paul Klee’s 1920 painting Angelus Novus, which Walter Benjamin compared, in the text below, to “the angel of history”
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Nowhere Boy (2009) – directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, written by Matt Greenhalgh, based on biography by Julia Baird
by Margaux Williamson
(I wasn’t too interested in this movie, about the childhood of John Lennon, till my friend Sheila mentioned that the director was Sam Taylor-Wood. Sam Taylor-Wood is a British artist. I was curious to see what kind of movie she would have directed and happy that I would be able to see a complete work. She often works in multi-channel video installations and I have only ever seen stills.
Sheila and I discussed in great detail when and where we would watch Nowhere Boy. Finally, on a very specific and snowy night, I walked over to her house. Inside, it became clear that we had missed the “how” part – neither of us had Nowhere Boy on our persons or in our electronic devices.
So we played Tetris instead, and drank some tall glasses of water. We wondered if this was what it was going to be like when we were old. )
by Chris Randle
Carl wrote a long post about Destroyer’s Kaputt last week, and on Tumblr there was much rejoicing: “Finally, commentary worthy of the album.” I wasn’t going to top that, so I decided to focus on the previous critical discussion around this obsession-forming record. Carl alluded to it: various writers bringing up “dad rock” like Roxy Music and Steely Dan, or fixating on Dan Bejar’s use of “cheesy” musical signifiers. (Rifle through the 800-posts-and-counting ILX thread to find arguments for and against those interpretations.) Why not test their theories on an actual dad? Mine was born in the early 1950s. Like Bryan Ferry, half of the Eurythmics and Kenickie, he is from Sunderland. The only Kaputt reference point I gave to him before putting it on was “Vancouver.”
Dad: It’s playing “Chinatown.”
Chris: It’s supposed to be!
Dad: It doesn’t sound very modern. It sounds like something you’d hear 20-30 years ago. The first two, especially the second one, were kind of Bowie-like. When I was growing up, you would call this “soft rock.”
Chris: His earlier records never really sounded like this – they didn’t have the sax solos or the trumpets. The closest one is an album called Your Blues, but its similarities also seem radically different because all the music was made with MIDI simulations. Even his voice is a little restrained here, when it’s normally very, uh, idiosyncratic. A lot of critics have cited later Roxy Music as a possible inspiration. Bejar himself, too.
Dad: Roxy Music had a bigger edge. This is more conventional, I would say, the music anyway. If you listen to the Roxy Music stuff, the guitar often sounds…jagged in some sense.
[Chris is relieved that his dad didn't go for "angular"]
Dad: These lyrics are…interesting. “Wise, old, black and dead in the snow…Don’t talk about the South…”
Chris: They’re made up of text that the artist Kara Walker gave to him. Bejar returns to America over and over again in his lyrics, as a subject or a symbol, but I don’t think he’s ever mentioned race before.
Dad: It’s okay, but it doesn’t have that distinctiveness of a Bowie or a Steely Dan. Mainly I think because of the music, it’s too monotonous. They need a bit of quirkiness in it.
Chris: You mean, aside from the lyrics?
Dad: Some of the lyrics are quirky! Why is he singing about Melody Maker and NME?
[Chris tries to think of an answer that doesn't involve the word "metacommentary," gives up]
Dad: This sounds a bit different, it doesn’t fit with the rest of the album at all. It’s psychedelic and it’s like…LSD music.
Chris: It’s his disco single. Sort of.
Dad: I think this track was added to fill the record up.
Chris: The vinyl version has a 20-minute-long instrumental sequenced before this one, though! Maybe the hardcore fans just couldn’t get enough “Bay of Pigs.”
Dad: Quite good to listen to, overall. Some of the lyrics are good. It’s harmless, I would say. It sounded…languid. This 25-year-old throwback to jazzy soft rock. You never get the sense that Brian Ferry is just sitting around singing, it always sounds like they’re in a club or some other smoky, boozy place. [Bejar has said that he recorded some of Kaputt's vocals while lying around or "fixing myself a sandwich."]
Chris: One review invoked the cover for Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies’ Man – it argued that Bejar is playing a similar character, this aging playboy who’s become a little wiser and faintly amused by it all.
Postscript: I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from this conversation, if any, but it is funny that lots of music nerds (myself included) hear jarring, almost toxic beauty in Kaputt when my dad just thought it was blandly pleasant. Épater that!
Black Swan (2010) – conceived and directed by Darren Aronofsky, written by Mark Heyman, starring Natalie Portman
by Margaux Williamson
(I saw this movie with my friend Ryan Kamstra. I wasn’t sure if I would like the movie, but I thought I might like it better if I saw it with Ryan. We have a pretty easy time laughing at things while also taking them very seriously. This is usually helpful with work that takes no breaks for jokes. We saw it at a big multiplex during the day.)
Swan Lake is an old story. Tchaikovsky brought it into form for the ballet in 1876. It tells the story of a princess who is under the spell of an evil sorcerer. By day, she is a swan, and at night, a woman. Other women are under the same spell but the princess is called the Swan Queen. They are confined all together in the prison of Swan Lake. The only thing that can break the spell is the promise of true love from a prince.
We have enjoyed this story for so long because the story both helps to clarify and to mythologize the medium that delivers it – ballet. During the day, the ballerinas are on their toes, defying gravity and human limitations to move in freakishly hypnotic and otherworldly unison. We sense there is something wrong but we also so enchanted. Afterwards, if we happen to be at the same party with the dancers, we watch them smoke cigarettes, drink vodka and occasionally glare in our direction. Mere mortals! But mortals are the only things we ever fall in love with.
In the movie Black Swan, the story of Swan Lake is updated for both the 21st century and the medium of film. This changes a few things. Here the story extends beyond the stage and into the lives of the people creating the staged performance of the Swan Lake ballet. This solves a perpetual problem with the old story: We never really knew why a sorcerer would turn a princess into a swan – other than “because he was so evil” and that is never such a good answer.
Now, freed from the narrow perspective of the stage and the fairytale, we understand more easily that a sorcerer would turn a princess into a swan because it is really something to watch a woman dance like that.
In the old story, a prince does come. He even comes close to breaking the spell for the Swan Queen, but his efforts are thwarted by the sorcerer’s trickery. The sorcerer presents his daughter to the prince as though she is the Swan Queen. The daughter, although dressed in black, is a look-alike of the Swan Queen. The prince is fooled and offers his everlasting love to this wrong woman – this black swan.
When learning of his mistake, he runs to the Swan Queen begging for her forgiveness. Being young and full of goodness, she easily forgives him, but that is not enough to end the spell. The ballet ends with a suicide or sometimes with a double suicide – since now this is the only remaining option.
But here, in the 21st century, we are not so interested in the prince. The prince, whose only purpose is to break the spell of being such a strange creature, is of no use to us. If the spell broke, the Swan Queen would lose her day job. So, in Black Swan, the prince is barely more than a prop. Though we see some elements of his character fused with that of the sorcerer (the company’s artistic director) – the man in charge of the swans and picking the right woman for the role of the Swan Queen. What the Swan Queen wants more than anything is to be all swan. The Swan Queen here is Nina played by Natalie Portman.
Though the prince has lost sexual value, the sorcerer (the director) and the black swan (a new dancer at the company named Lily) have gained it considerably. The director is the boss that Nina wants to please and learn from. And Lily, with her playfully devious and sensual nature, inevitably interests Nina. Lily has so much to show her. These objects of attraction we can understand. They can only help improve her craft, bringing her closer to staying a Swan Queen forever.
Since the origins of the Swan Lake ballet, the Swan Queen and the black swan are often played by the same dancer. Nina’s attempt to embody the black swan successfully (having mastered the Swan Queen already) forms the narrative of Black Swan. If she fails to embody the darker, more sensual depths of the black swan, Lily might be cast in her place.
In an earlier movie of Darren Aronofsky’s, Requiem for a Dream, his manner of exploring the murky and painful depths of drug addiction in Hubert Selby Jr.’s book of the same name, seemed a little generic or unfocused – as though the formula for serious art was obvious: the darker the art, the better the art.
But in Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s intentions seem much more articulated and transparent. It seems as though he has set himself up in this underworld, roaming around in the clichés and sludge, because that is the place he loves the best. His pleasure and a very subtle humour accompany everything – though there are no jokes. It helps here that the characters are not victims of drugs, but of excellence. The goal for excellence frames the masochism involved, in this decent into the underworld, as a rare pleasure rather than a necessary cost of pleasure.
One of the best things about the movie is the complete naivety that surrounds Nina as she bravely and blindly attempts to descend to the depths. Because of her inexperience in these depths, she gives everything she finds there the same value: sex is equal to murder is equal to confidence. This makes her quite a villain.
Throughout the movie, Nina longs to earn the ballet director’s nickname “little princess” that he bestows on only the rarest and finest of Swan Queens. It is really something to see how bloody things get before this small woman finally earns her nickname.