Tag Archives: marriage

Carl’s Tuesday Musics: Life’s Little Ups and Downs by Margaret-Ann Rich, sung by Charlie Rich, recommended by Kelly Hogan

by Carl Wilson

On Saturday night I went to see Kelly Hogan play, a pleasure that I’ve had probably half a dozen times in my life and one that never gets less pleasurable. Hogan was recovering from a recent bout of pneumonia, she told us, and she kept a cotton handkerchief hanging from her mic stand to take the phlegm between songs – so for the first time in my experience, her voice that’s normally like a ship’s horn cutting through fog faltered and cracked on some of the big notes. But that was fine, or more than fine, because it just made her lean emotionally harder into the quieter stuff. She’s the kind of singer who can make every line a surprise, even of a song you know by heart: Every moment of a song is another turn of the wheel for Hogan.

Researchers like Dan Levitin talk about how the brain loves the musical tension between repetition and novelty, but Hogan reminds me that much of the music I love best never feels like it’s repeating, even when the notes are purportedly the same. (She had a perfect complement in guitarist and bandleader Jim Elkington, who likewise seems to have arranged every line of his multilayered accompaniment to mirror specifically the emotional progress of the song.) And of course she was warm and funny and made you want to pattern your life and personality on her, because that’s just what Hogan’s like, and why there weren’t a thousand people there in supplication is a mystery to me.

So in an effort to Be More Like Kelly Hogan, I took note of her tribute to Margaret Ann Rich, who wrote the song Pass On By that Hogan covers on her new album, and many others – most of them for her husband, the country star Charlie Rich, but for Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge and others too. This is her most famous song, which different people hear different ways: Dave Marsh describes it in The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made as a “thinly disguised roman a clef about being married to an alcoholic singer/piano player who almost-but-not-quite reached superstardom, not once but thrice.” He also claims that many critics have interpreted it as “a criticism of the American class system” (though Marsh thinks not). When he’s covered it live, the alt-country performer Robbie Fulks describes it as “all of existence in two verses.” You could say a lot about its vision of marriage and gender too. Or you could just listen.

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Filed under carl wilson, music, Tuesday Musics

“Video Killed the Radio Star,” as used in Take This Waltz by Sarah Polley (2012), a movie about love and, perhaps, technology

by Carl Wilson

[NOTE: This post “spoils” major plot points.]

I couldn’t be less capable of forming an opinion about Sarah Polley’s recent Take This Waltz. It is set not just in Toronto but in my exact Toronto – Parkdale, Kensington Market, the Island, the airport. Call it what you want. (I know what you’re calling it.) The star, Michelle Williams, hits me emotionally on screen more than any of her contemporaries, even when she is just interacting with shafts of light (as she often does here); her romantic foils are Seth Rogan, who’s charmed me ever since Freaks and Geeks and can be enough reason to see a movie that looks unpromising, and Luke Kirby, who’s an old friend-of-friends. (The plot, boiled down to a peashoot: Williams leaves Rogan for Kirby.)

It’s a little difficult, too, living here, not to have preconceived reactions to the very idea of Sarah Polley that I wouldn’t if she were in L.A. or London. (I couldn’t make it through her last film, feeling bored, though I should try again.)

More potently it is also about the Toronto I know because it is about marriages between decent people that break up mainly because, as Sarah Silverman tells Williams in the movie, “Life has a gap in it, it just does,” and it is hard to know how large this chasm is supposed to be and which resorts to bridging or filling it are fair, reasonable or crazy ones. (It is about, in other words, How Should a Person Be?) Some friends and their friends were also on the soundtrack. And it’s titled after one of my favourite songs, more about which later.

But mainly I can’t form an opinion about it because I was crying for the entire final third of the film, almost certainly a personal Guinness Record. I cry easily at movies, which means my eyes are streaming sort of neutrally (I’m not gasping, heaving; often I’m laughing at the same time) while I continue to watch, like an android weeping over a dead electric sheep, but I don’t pretend my judgment can be fully engaged then.

I suspect the film has significant flaws, but I would have to watch it again to articulate them … aside from the sex montage with the two threesomes – one MMF and one FFM, too symmetrical, too concerned with what it might have said to pick one or another, which contributes to the way we fail to get any sense of the second relationship compared to the first, except that there is sex finally, and in a ravishing loft space that those characters could not realistically afford.

That’s broadly a legitimate choice, but its execution seems representative of what the movie doesn’t quite achieve. It feels more like Seth Rogan’s character’s paranoid fantasy of what would be happening (cf. John Cusack in High Fidelity: “No woman in the history of the world is having better sex than the sex you are having with Ian in my head”). Although of course early-relationship sex can in fact be amazing.

But there’s one thing I can judge, which is that Take This Waltz makes the best use of the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” in the history of that song, if we discount (as we must) its literal, legendary use as the shot-across-the-bow first video on MTV in 1981.

The other music in the movie is indie twee, though not bad. I loved the Feist cover of “Closing Time” by Leonard Cohen (which features Afie and Jason from Bahamas and Mike from Zeus) in the fraught party scene, thinking in that moment that it would be so smart if the movie didn’t include any other Leonard Cohen, especially not the title song. Then that song shows up in the sex montage, and it’s all but awful there, way too weighty, with its double-barreled Cohen/Lorca imagery and lush continental tune, for the scene.

“Video Killed the Radio Star” comes up twice: First, it plays while Williams and Kirby are on an illicit date at Centre Island, on an amusement-park ride, the Scrambler, that they choose ostensibly because it goes “so fast” that they won’t be able to do anything inadvisable, a ridiculous rationalization (yeah, being on a tilt-a-whirl, thrown against each other involuntarily by the force of gravity – no one’s used that metaphor for love ever). There the song is all momentum, giddiness and dreamlike tacky-innocent nostalgia, which is what “Radio Star” typically represents in movies, TV shows or real-life dance parties.

But then it comes back at the movie’s end, when Williams is unsure, half-regretful, over her choices, but also stuck with them, and perhaps content to be. On one level, a conventional flashback – remember the Scrambler, when none of this was real yet and therefore thrilling but also as safe as a stupid old 80s song? Now that’s gone. Nostalgia has lost its innocence, and so is doubled.

Yet of course that rhymes perfectly with the lyrics of the song: “We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far.” And so the the film and the song begin singing questions into each other’s mouths: When we move from one love to another, is it as shallow a difference as that from one delivery method for the three-minute rush of a pop song (or of sex, of a moment of affection, of a good teasing joke that makes the world warmer) to another?

Adam Phillips, in his book, Monogamy: “For the monogamist the thought of infidelity is the secular equivalent of the afterlife. It is the thought of something infinitely better or infinitely worse: something perhaps one has to earn; a blackmail of sorts. Certainly something for the future. But then what no one ever dared think about the afterlife was that it might be exactly the same as this one.”

The Buggles: “Pictures came and broke your heart/ Put the blame on VTR”  (video tape recorder).

Did the eclipse of radio by video really remake the musical/media world? For the better or the worse? The joke “Internet killed the video star” has been made many times, framing this within a shift we tend to count as more profound. But perhaps video did have that impact. We came to relate to music through a different scrim after that, one with less mystery, just as the invention of the rock star had altered that balance decades before. Indeed, from the Residents through Jandek and the Weeknd, there’s a recurring counterreaction, artists set upon stripping away visual and biographical cues, restoring mystique to music and therefore in a sense its freedom. (Who would fantasize about fucking Jandek? Someone, surely.)

In our personal lives, as in our pop-culture lives, we don’t know the answers to any of these questions beyond knee-jerk opinions. Everything takes on a cast of inevitability, and so we rationalize in reverse to say that the way things went was how they had to go: Who could have known that a high-speed tilt-a-whirl would be so arousing?

There is a more compelling logic, it seems, in technological change than in personal change, though it’s still open to critique: Read thinkers like the Christian anarchist Jacques Ellul on techne, or Ivan Illich, not to mention environmentalism generally – are we as a species unable to take any other forks in the road than we do? Are we unable to think preventively, and should we? (Put another way: Does free will exist?)

Now reflect that back on the intimate version: Are we unable to do anything else with the ebb of passion than to surrender to the next flow, at least without a social support system that integrates love, and our impulses around it, into a more finely tuned ecology? The downtown-urban life, so pleasurable in so much of this movie, lacks a lot of the traditional embeddings of long-term monogamy, such as the extended family. The movie is careful to show that Rogan’s and Williams’s marriage does have a reinforcing network – though notably, that it is more his than hers, and it is called into existence at gatherings, on special occasions, not so much in the neighbourhood, the day-to-day battleground where magnetic temptation may be just across the street.

A chance meeting on a trip, on a plane, can be more powerful than the bonds of five years – at least in a life in which five years at once feels like a long time and can be compressed by the magic of traumatic transition into a forgettable moment.

Further, can these modes, of sequential passions versus long-lasting loves, somehow coexist, or must they be engines of mutual destruction? And is that dilemma different for men and women? The movie is serious about that.

Phillips again: “For some of us – perhaps the fortunate, or at least the affluent – monogamy is the only serious philosophical question.” That might be the bigger definition of what’s wrong with Take This Waltz. But there is a broader question, implicit in “… Radio Star”, about why people who have so much are so inclined to stop wanting it, to be driven to replace it. These are intractable issues about the persistence of hungers, of shortsightedness, of how much humanity can change. If we cannot find balance in these close-up interactions, with people we understand, can we find it between nations and peoples? Or can distance be the saving grace?

Apparently the lyrics of “Video Killed the Radio Star” were sparked by a J.G. Ballard story in which an opera singer is found hiding in a sewer by a mute boy, in a world in which music has been abolished. That expands what Trevor Horn, in his casual pop-culture tone, is asking: Does video conquering radio mean music itself vanishes? Without marriage, is there love? Like the boy in Ballard’s story, as a viewer in tears I was in a sense mute, unable to join Take This Waltz in duet. Or in a deeper critique.

I knew the injudicious weeping was going to happen when I watched this movie. For that reason I put it off for a few weeks, and waited till I had the right person (who was also of course the wrong person) to watch it with me. When we go into relationships, or enter optimistically into new eras of innovation, don’t we know, really, what is going to happen, at least if we are not kids anymore? (Williams’s character here is about to turn 30.) Yet we “lie awake, intent on tuning in on you,” as the Buggles sing. (I don’t think my viewing companion ever cried.)

We are the creatures, as Cohen has it, of “this waltz, this waltz, this waltz, this waltz” – hear him sing it four times, not the musically symmetrical three, always waltzing one time too many – with “its very own breath, of brandy and death, dragging its tail in the sea.” Does this stale heady air belong to the waltz itself, or to our own mortal, social, erotic myopia, or is it even possible to tell the waltzer from the waltz? What a relief, then, whatever the case may be, to give in, to give it away. “It’s yours now, it’s all that there is.”

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Filed under carl wilson, movies, music, poetry

Little Boxes #40

(from Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzucchelli, 2009)

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Filed under chris randle, comics

The Bands that Don’t Reform, by Antony Harding and Darren Hayman

by Carl Wilson

Hefner, in their salad days, with singer Darren Hayman at left, drummer Ant Harding second from right.

I’m beavering away on my lecture for next week’s 2011 Pop Conference in Los Angeles, where both Chris and I will be presenting among tons of other prominent nerdz. I’ll be schematizing the various ways artists have violated or repositioned the “fourth wall” in their music and how that may or may not relate to reality TV, creative nonfiction and other recent phenomena. I’m not sure if this example is going to fit into the talk (it’s a bit slight) but it tickled me to stumble across it.

Darren Hayman (last seen on B2TW posting a song a day in January) has just put up a single that he recorded with his ex-Hefner bandmate Antony Harding a couple of years ago, “The Bands that Don’t Reform.” The meta-reflexive-whatchamacallit of the project is evident in the title, of course: Here are two members of a band that’s not reforming nevertheless semi-reuniting,  and flirting with the subject in an era when many groups of their ’90s vintage such as Pavement and the Pixies were getting back out on the road to finally get a payday proportionate to their reputations.

But the wink gets more strobe-like in velocity on the very pretty song itself, which turns out to be the story of a couple in the throes of disillusion: “Something here ain’t right/ I loved you at first sight, so why don’t I love you tonight?” They run down all the traits that are driving them apart and reach out in desperation (“tired of getting no sleep”) to “count the things we both believe,” of which there seems to be only one: “We love the bands that don’t reform.”

It could read as a pretty thin joke about a couple of those aforementioned nerdz realizing that they only have their petty music-fanatic dogma left in common, but there’s a second, more bittersweet layer: If they don’t think even the relatively minor business of a rock band trying to reunite has any hope of a good result, then why are they trying to glue together a couple of split-up hearts?

These scenarios seem to melt into each other as the song goes on; many details involve driving from place to place and having mishaps (though also seeing beautiful scenery) like a band on tour. As they explain elsewhere, the love story is a camouflage: The song is about how “they were both crazy when they were in Hefner,” and aren’t crazy anymore, and so won’t ever take the chance of starting that project up again.

Which is another mirror-within-a-mirror: In the song, they’re the audience not wanting their favourite bands’ selfish profit- or glory-seeking to spoil memories of things past; but behind the half-opened fourth wall, they’re musicians with private reasons not to reunite though their fans persist in wanting them to.

Although they don’t say reunite; they say reform, with its other meaning of  shedding bad old habits, becoming a healthier, more law-abiding citizen, not crazy anymore. So the song whispers under its breath, “You don’t want us back like that, anyway, reconstituted as some bland grownup working unit. You want us crazy.”

As Bill Hicks once put it, “When did mediocrity and banality become a good image for your children? I want my children listening to people who fucking rocked! I don’t care if they died in pools of their own vomit! I want someone who plays from his fucking heart! ‘Mommy, the man Bill told me to listen to has a blood bubble on his nose.’ Shut up and listen to him play!”

On the other hand,  Bill Hicks is dead, and while it was cancer not the drugs and alcohol and cigarettes, it may be his own reform came too late. Besides, Hefner were never exactly the trashing-hotel-room types; they were the critics’-darlings-who-look-and-sound-like-critics kinda band.

So this song sees both sides, tells its ambiguous story with a loping, lullaby-like lilt rather than a Hicks-like roar. They still play from their hearts; those hearts are just calmer, and heavier, now, and they play them as they lay, and let sleeping bands lie, in both senses of the word, as we ought to expect by this point.

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A Marriage Review of Convenience

by Chris Randle

I’ve been working on my own post about Kaputt, but I couldn’t finish it until after Carl’s went up for logistical/thematic/mysterious reasons. In the meantime, here’s a fairly long review of Adrian Tomine’s new book, Scenes from an Impending Marriage – long for such a slender collection of comics, at least. That doesn’t make it a trifle. As I wrote: “The graphic vignettes documenting months of frazzled planning turn out to be his breeziest, most immediate work yet, inviting for romantics and formalists alike.”

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The Kids Are All Right (2010) – directed by Lisa Cholodenko, written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg

 

by Margaux Williamson

(I saw this in the middle of a very long train trip headed north. My boyfriend picked it out. We watched it on his laptop with separate headphones. The little boy next to us was watching Spider Man without headphones.  I didn’t realize till just before we started watching it that the director was Lisa Cholodenko. I had seen two of her other movies High Art and Laurel Canyon and never would have guessed this was hers. We both laughed a lot. The movie was what you hope a Hollywood/ independent/ intelligent drama could be, but rarely is – incredibly good and not dumb. )


The Kids Are All Right is about a sort-of-happy family with two moms, one teenage son and one teenage daughter. The son becomes curious about his and his sister’s sperm donor (each of the moms gave birth but the same donor was used in both cases). Together, the kids contact the sperm donor. This is done secretly so that they don’t hurt their moms’ feelings. The Sperm donor (Paul played by Mark Ruffalo) is handsome and charming and is a soft-spoken ladies’ man. He owns a fancy restaurant, rides a motorcycle and dates young earthy women with tank tops. The kids aren’t sure if they like him or not but he starts coming to family dinner.

His presence slightly alters the dynamic of the family, in some ways really positively, empowering some family members, but also threatens the position for the more controlling mom (Nic played by Annette Bening). The more laid-back mom (Jules played by Julianne Moore) abruptly kisses Paul one day after he hires her to do some landscaping in his backyard. He kisses her back. As the days go on, there is much sex, and much understated bemusement and also troubled bemusement. After one sex incident Jules exclaims – “What is WRONG with me?!?”

It is more mundane subject matter than the mysteries-of-making-art and woman-rock-stars of Lisa Cholodenko’s other movies, High Art and Laurel Canyon (where there is much seductive yearning for things just-out-of-reach – like sex & mentoring from complicated women, or professional success in the arts), but all three movies are pretty straightforward narratives.

What makes The Kids Are All Right weirder and weightier is that it has something unusual to say. The movie builds and communicates the idea that marriage is a strong institution – like a pyramid.

After the affair is revealed to the whole family in a tumultuous instant, Paul and Jules have a private conversation on their cell phones. They are both outside because they live in California. He takes a breath and then takes a big leap (maybe the biggest of his life) – “Let’s do this. Let’s make a go of this.. now that it’s out in the open”.

Jules’ face moves in a spasm between incredulity and exasperation. I don’t remember what she said first – “I’m married!!!” or – “I’m a lesbian!!!”, but she hung up the phone after one of them.  He had had no idea what he was up against. Neither did we really. We are used to marriages in movies being more like straw houses, and the people who blow them down – more like wolves.

With Jules’ declarations to Paul of commitments and sexual orientation (and everything that came before them in the movie), marriage suddenly looked like a heavy, intricate object – a thing complicated and structurally sound, with an agreed upon contract that allows construction and maintenance to take place over good and bad times, something difficult but that can ideally change shape, something that can’t be so easily be knocked down.

Paul got locked out of the house and it was hard not to feel for him – especially here in this movie where all the characters were complicated. The people inside the house were miserable, but they were warm and they would recover.

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