Nearly five years after everyone else, my partner and I finally got a Wii. I’m not a gamer, though I will destroy your entire family at boxing (well, unless your family includes my pint-size neighbor). But if I can marinate in my privilege for a minute, using the Wii for Netflix Instant is pretty awesome. Granted, I’ve been streaming stuff on my laptop for some time, but projecting it onto the living room TV is so nice (I also don’t have to worry about my television overheating and shutting down). I haven’t had cable since 2005, so being able to watch Louie or Now and Then or Exit Through the Gift Shop or season two of Parks and Recreation (season three begins January 20!!!) whenever is beyond luxurious. At some point I’ll watch that Harry Nilsson documentary, though I hope locals forked over $2 to see it at the Drafthouse during this week’s Music Mondays screening. Immersion with this gadget kind of kept me from writing, actually. When you’re battling a wicked case of cedar fever and it’s dark by 5, why not cuddle up on the couch to an entire season of Man v. Food?
I’ve also been pruning my queue, which I always hold at capacity. Capturing the Friedmans took up space for some time and now it’s haunting my dreams. loudQUIETloud, Steven Cantor and Matthew Galkin’s documentary about the Pixies, has clogged up my queue since late 2006. I was pretty “meh” about seeing it, but thought it’d be good to watch while I was playing my guitar.
I’m kind of prejudiced against this band. I acknowledge their greatness and like many of their songs. I’ll stand by “Debaser” and “River Euphrates.” The first Pixies song I heard was “Isla de Encanta,” which I originally encountered during the closing credits of Married to the Mob, one of my mom’s favorite movies. Since I came of age in the 90s, songs like “Gigantic,” “Here Comes Your Man,” and “Monkey Gone to Heaven” were modern rock retro cut staples. Most everyone knows Fight Club ends with ‘Where Is My Mind?” And I’ll always remember accompanying an old roommate to a disconcerting wardrobe fitting for a drag show at the clothing designer’s studio apartment, where she was blasting Pixies songs in tribute to a friend who just died of an overdose.
I probably take them for granted because bands like Nirvana made the band’s singular dynamic structure (signposted in the documentary’s title) so commonplace. Mainly I just get tired of Frank Black’s petulant genius routine and project contempt onto his rabid fan base, who I always imagine as sweaty white dudes who think they’re better than you because they read science fiction. Plus, Kurt was right. Bassist Kim Deal should have written more songs for the Pixies. Since Black tightened his grip on the band as they continued, she left and formed the Breeders with her twin sister Kelley, which I got to first and happen to like more. Talk about a band with pop hooks and dynamic tension.
I actually don’t have too much to say about this one, as it’s a pretty straightforward piece about the band reuniting in 2004, paving the tour route for dozens of other indie bands who cashed in on their prestige with reunions throughout the decade (though I think Pavement made it safe for nostalgia acts to make cameos on reality TV). Some noteworthy parts for me are how Deal commits to sobriety, drummer/magician/puka shell enthusiast David Lovering struggles to do so, Deal’s sister follows the band around with a camera, Black gets jealous that the twins are holed up in the bus writing songs for another Breeders’ record, and secret weapon lead guitarist Joey Santiago is too grown for any nonsense.
However, a few scenes make this documentary worth viewing for feminist music geeks. At one point, the band encounters a superfan bass player. She became enamored with the group after reading Louisa Luna’s Brave New Girl, a YA novel about a teenage girl who’s obsessed with the band. The fan gives her copy to Deal, who studies the excerpts about her band flagged with green highlighter. The documentary closes with this girl, whose band covers ”Monkey Gone to Heaven” during the closing credits. They’re fleeting but effective moments that demonstrate the bond shared between musician and fan, and how a woman with an instrument and a girl inspired by her can be a mutually beneficial connection.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I am stoked about Throwing Muses’ leader Kristin Hersh’s new memoir, Rat Girl. I don’t have time at the moment to read it, but hope to get to it and review it around the holidays. Between it and my late grandmother’s correspondence from Belgium in the early 1970s, I anticipate a late autumn full of interesting recollections.
Rat Girl follows a smart impulse by detailing one monumental year in the singer-guitarist’s life. So often, memoirs have a compelling start but then slog their way toward the present, leaving whole stretches of time unexplored. At 18, Hersh was diagnosed as bipolar, became pregnant, and found critical success with the band she co-founded with stepsister Tanya Donelly. Geez, and I thought my 18th birthday signaled upheaval. Also, dig Gilbert Hernandez’s cover, which makes Kristen at Act Your Age wish Rat Girl were a graphic novel. If only.
I’m somewhat new to Throwing Muses, having only a peripheral awareness of them before this year. I’ve since gotten into them and their big hit “Not Too Soon” (a Donelly song) will always be with me since it’s the first song I learned to play on guitar.
But I’m struck by Hersh’s crackly alto, assured guitar playing, off-kilter dynamics. I’m especially struck by her abstract lyrics, which often deal with mental anguish, desire, and femininity in ways both disorienting and ingenuous. Between Throwing Muses and the Breeders (which Donelly formed with Kim Deal between her exit from Throwing Muses and founding of Belly), I see no reason why you’ll ever need the Pixies.
The brief summation of plot alone warrants attention. However, I’m especially interested in reading about unlikely Throwing Muses fan Betty Hutton, a former singer and musical film star from the 40s and 50s. Hersh elaborates on it in a recent interview for NPR’s All Things Considered. For those unfamiliar, Betty Hutton is probably best known through Björk, who introduced me and many others to Hutton through “It’s Oh So Quiet,” which was a renamed cover of Hutton’s “Blow a Fuse.” I profess only a perfunctory understanding of Hutton, but can’t wait to learn more about her and the affinity she shared with Ms. Hersh.
I’ve noticed that all the album covers I’ve considered so far all feature the artist responsible for the work. Since I’ll soon write a blog entry on Joanna Newsom’s pseudo-odalisque for the forthcoming Have One On Me, I thought it would be fun to pick a cover that not only doesn’t feature musicians, but instead has an image that’s damn indecipherable.
Issues around legibility are why I didn’t choose to write about Vaughan Oliver’s cover for The Breeders’ better-known and wonderful Last Splash or his work on Lush’s Split. With the former, I’m 99.9% sure we’re looking at a heart-shaped strawberry covered in something more viscous than dew (edit: according to my friend Erik, it’s a liver). Also, that image compliments the album’s sticky ruminations on ripe female sexuality. Split‘s cover focuses on fruit as well, displaying lemons in a presentational manner that honors the album’s cinematic qualities but belies its ambiguous feelings toward dissolved relationships.
But what the fuck is going on with Oliver’s cover for Pod, the band’s debut? Is that some interpretive dancer wearing a leotard who has wilted green beans for arms? Are those even arms or are they another set of appendages? You got me.
(Note: again, according to my friend Erik, the cover is a picture of Vaughn Oliver dancing with eels strapped to his waist. Whoa!)
The swirl of gauzy lighting, sugary colors, and ambiguous figures is a hallmark of Oliver’s work with 4AD. I believe he did as much to create an aesthetic to match the label’s definitive dream pop and shoegaze as Peter Saville‘s stark, exacting compositions did for Factory Records’ output. With 4AD, the defining principle around both its look and sound was abjection. Annie at Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style recently brought up issues of abjection with regard to the construction of Jessica Simpson’s celebrity persona. Simon Reynolds and Joy Press made similar claims in The Sex Revolts about the womb-like sonic quality and pre-verbal, gender-ambiguous vocalizations that characterized much of shoegaze and dream pop, singling out My Bloody Valentine and 4AD labelmates Cocteau Twins.
I think The Breeders align with the abject as well. The name references founding members’ Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly’s sex and the naturalized biological function of the female body in ways that confront and mock patriarchal convention as well as evoke fear. This sense of terror is perhaps further enforced by the presence of bassist Kelley Deal, Kim’s identical twin sister. The album’s title suggests gestation, a bodily process fraught with abject implications. This theme extends to its songs as well. As Erik pointed out, “Hellbound” is about a baby who survives an abortion. The band’s origins even suggest the process of casting off, as Deal and Donelly initially came together to form a side project during the twilight of their time with 4AD acts The Pixies and Throwing Muses.
Furthermore, while The Breeders seem to have a more conventional sound anchored by accessible melodies, their music is far emotionally murkier than initial listening may suggest. Pod showcases a surprisingly clear, crisp production aesthetic engineered by Steve Albini for a pittance, but there’s something too narrow about the sound and too intense about the bright vocals and high harmonies. They help create a distinctly female tension that doesn’t get resolved after a quiet verse transitions into a cathartic, loud chorus. When the other shoe drops, as it does on songs like “Iris,” there’s little chance of release after the chorus so much as the certainty of more claustrophobic terror constricting the still moments waiting in the next passage.
And songs like “Oh!” contain little structural release apart from Deal’s splintered yelp at 1:47. They just wait. The band pounce elsewhere on the album, and you’re never ready for it when they let loose. It just proves that with women, like albums, can’t be judged by their covers.
Note: The following post about (500) Days of Summer and why I was not charmed by it contains spoilers. I will also adhere to a list-like format for the sake of brevity. However, if you wanna read it as some dig against the sleeper rom-com’s indexical use of number-play, texts are bendy.
It was hard to go into the screening for this movie objectively. I had some misgivings about this movie that I catalogued prior to attending a Saturday matinee screening. They are as follows:
1. The preview is really fucking twee.
2. The oft-mentioned post-coital musical number, complete with marching band, animated bird, and ironic use of Hall and Oates’s great but over-used “Dreams Come True.”
3. A friend mentioned that Gordon-Levitt’s character moves on from Summer with a girl named Autumn. Seriously.
4. Same friend made quite the indictment on race and whiteness.
5. The “vintage” clothes — while Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt are in adorable outfits, they seem less vintage than Anthropologie‘s upper-middle-class version of vintage. Everything is so tidy and worn once and unlived in. It just made me miss my friend Kit, who almost exclusively wears amazing thrift-store dresses (many of which I know she’s worn multiple times). Her look is much more comfort-based and much less polished. I think I would’ve responded to the outfits if there were at least one loose thread or frayed cuff, especially since Summer is probably not cashing fat checks as a personal assistant to the head of a greeting card company. Sigh. I know; it’s a movie.
But my big problem going in was the self-conscious music geekery. Examples:
1. Gordon-Levitt wears the “Love Will Tear Us Apart” Joy Division t-shirt in one scene. GET IT? Ugh. Such an obvious visual joke. I think if there’s gonna be a music geek dramatic irony t-shirt joke, maybe having him wear a My Bloody Valentine t-shirt would have been better. But is there really a need?
2. A friend said that Summer quotes a Belle and Sebastian song in her high school yearbook. Blech.
3. When they break up, Summer casts her and Tom as Sid and Nancy, respectively. Ain’t nothin’ skid row about these two.
In addition, I tend to have misgivings about movies and TV shows that make music geekery — and its quirky application — so central to informing characterization and narrative (see also Juno, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and Flight of the Conchords). It might be contrarian, but I feel instantly resistant to these kinds of texts because I feel like I’m supposed to like them because of the music geekery. But I need more than that. While I enjoy movies like Adventureland and High Fidelity (among others like Velvet Goldmine, Times Square, Dazed and Confused, and recently Hedwig and the Angry Inch), the music geekery is actually most interesting in the peripheral.
As an aside: it seems the people of my acquaintance who have the most vitriol toward this movie are also the most personally invested in music culture. They’re also pretty cool, but wouldn’t describe themselves as such. This perhaps gestures toward how pejorative and subjective the word “hipster” has become within my generation.
To stay positive, three things about the movie made me hopeful anyway:
1. The leads are appealing.
2. Summer doesn’t want to be in a relationship.
3. Apparently director Marc Webb made iPod playlists for the leads for each scene to help get them into character. This is interesting to me, especially read alongside playlist auteurs like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Wes Anderson, who use music to create scenes and develop characters.
With that said, I hated this movie. So much so that I was relieved that I saw it for free.
I was pretty turned off from the start. Principally because the trailer and the opening sequence stress that this is not a love story. But that’s a lie. It’s completely a love story. It’s just not between Gordon-Levitt’s Tom and Deschanel’s Summer. It’s between first-time feature director Webb and first-time screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber and how goddamn clever they can be. Just how goddamn clever?
1. There is a marching band and a girl named Autumn.
2. There is a black and white French film that plays in the middle of the movie that turns into Tom’s life story as he sees it. I think they’re going for Godard here, but in my limited knowledge of Godard, this seems too cheap for him. He seems like the type who’d have celebrity culture gatecrash into real life, not have real life imitate a French film.
3. Summer and Tom like to have dates in Ikea, playing house in the showrooms. I will overread this as a Pavement reference.
And then there’s icky touches of whimsy that feel forced and disingenuous. Being cute and fanciful is tricky business, mainly because being charming on camera has to seem effortless. The exemplar for me is Jack Lemmon straining pasta with a tennis racket in The Apartment. Here are a few examples that miss the mark:
1. This movie has a narrator (who, as my friend Karin astutely pointed out, is far from omniscient or objective — he’s basically there to align the audience to Tom). In general, I hate movie narration. It reminds me of what I learned from “Charlie Kaufman” in Adaptation. With some exceptions, narration is profoundly lazy storytelling and filmmaking.
2. Tom has a blackboard covering an entire wall of his bedroom. So he can be close to his true passion. Drawing buildings.
3. Summer is so much a fan of artist René Magritte that she’s actually arranged a bowler hat and an apple on her coffee table.
4. Tom wants to be an architect, but is somehow saddled with a job at a greeting card company. To convince Tom of his true passion, Summer has him draw a landscape on her arm.
5. After Summer breaks up with Tom, he quits his job at the greeting card company after a rousing boardroom speech about how the industry feeds lies about romance to mankind. When he storms out, his wiseacre friend does the slow clap. (Aside: I actually predicted this by starting my own clap about five seconds before actor Geoffrey Arend did it on screen – gold star for me!)
And then there are things that make no sense:
1. Summer and Tom first get to know each other at a karaoke bar. Summer does “Sugartime,” a delightful little tune from the late 1950s. Apparently she wanted to do “Born to Run,” but they didn’t have it. Then Tom does a rendition of “Here Comes Your Man” by The Pixies. What karaoke bar has The Pixies but doesn’t have any Bruce on hand? The Boss is who drunk people turn to when they don’t wanna sing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” again.
2. It takes Tom twenty days or so to work toward his dream of becoming an architect. Primarily because he starts drawing and making lists on his blackboard and reading books at coffee shops.
3. Tom rags on Summer for liking Ringo best. Who doesn’t like Ringo?
4. This movie takes place in Los Angeles? Really? Locals and natives, help me out. I’ve been to your fine, sunny city several times. I’ve even been in the vicinity of where some scenes were shot. It never looked like New York to me.
And finally, there were four things that I found interesting, but did not think were well-executed. As they were related to issues of gender and age, these missed opportunities made me the saddest.
1. Summer really doesn’t want a relationship with Tom and stresses that from the very beginning. There’s mention of her parents divorcing when she was young, but I think she just wants to be alone and be independent and figure out what she wants in life (both maybe explain why she cries at the end of The Graduate before breaking up with Tom). I thought this was awesome. . . . At least I thought this until she gets married to some guy at the end for some reason.
2. The movie seems invested in making a commentary on how men objectify women, how movies abet that process, and how it results in men not really knowing the women they claim to love (I think Michel Gondry’s Science of Sleep was trying to make a similar statement, and failed in my estimation for similar reasons). Tom’s “expectations vs. reality” split-screen sequence is made all the more poignant after the scenes where Tom (along with the camera and the editor) have cut Summer into fragments (her smile, her hair, her laugh, her eyes, her knees, etc.). Because, for all his obsession, Tom never really knows Summer. He may think he sees her everywhere, but he never really sees her. Instead, he sees creepy images like this one.
3. Tom has a wise-beyond-her-years kid sister. Too bad she’s not really a person. A good precocious girl is my kryptonite (I love you, Linda Manz).
4. Summer isn’t really a person either. That’s too bad because I think Deschanel could have easily made her one and does fine with what she’s given (as does Gordon-Levitt). I also think this movie would have been more interesting if this sort of character was the protagonist.
Again, I think Summer’s lack of embodiment is part of the point — Tom wants Summer to be a manic pixie dream girl that can save him from his mediocre, humdrum existence, but she never performs as he thinks she should. Thus, Tom becomes obsessed with a woman he never actually knows.
But we, the audience, never really get to know her either, in part because the production personnel seem similarly vexed by her (as I think Tom is really just a stand-in for one of the screenwriters), but mainly because they are so bewitched by their words and camera tricks to give their characters any genuine motive or meaning.
I just finished the first five volumes of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim (not knowing that the final volume has yet to be released — yowzas, Vol. 5 drop-kicks you!). My friend Susan was good enough to let me borrow them — thanks, Susan!
The general premise is as follows: Scott Pilgrim is an aimless, jobless twenty-something Toronto resident with a band. He’s more than a bit scattered and commitment-phobic. At the beginning of the series, he dates a smitten Chinese Canadian teen (radly named Knives Chau), but falls hard for Ramona V. Flowers, an elusive American with ever-changing hair. In order to be together, he must defeat all seven of her evil ex-boyfriends in battle.
An otherwise mundane story about a guy and his social group quipping and shrugging toward adulthood, the series’ content clashes interestingly with its manga-influenced aesthetic and jarringly cut up with action sequences that hail the early Mario Brothers video games. Initially, the style was a little jarring, as the previous Oni Press title I had read was Local. Yes, the look is problematic, particularly in terms of how Japanese popular culture (manga, video games) are being used to tell the story of a primarily white group of young people. At the same time, being a twenty-something never seemed so fun, innocent, and lively. This is coming from someone who just signed a fat student loan check, so I appreciate these flights of fancy.
I’ll briefly launch into the reasons why I wanted to read it and why you might like it: 1) Edgar Wright is directing the feature adaptation, 2) Michael Cera is starring in it, and while his film work has been hit and miss for me, I’m still willing to see his movies, and 3) Scott Pilgrim is in a mixed-gender band, which I thought may be useful for this ol’ blog.
Now, if you’re a feminist and you’re like “ugh, I don’t really want to spend time and energy reading a comic about some slacker dude’s misadventures,” take comfort in Susan’s words to me. Like Luke Skywalker, Scott Pilgrim may be the protagonist, but in many ways, he’s the least exciting character. And, to me, the most interesting characters are all female. For the sake of specificity, I will focus on one of them — a firebrand drummer by the name of Kim Pine.
Now, the reasons why I should be in love with a comic book character are obvious to me. And not just because she reminds me of a girl I had a crush on in college. And I’m not alone.
For one, Kim Pine is the brains of the operation known as Sex-Bob-Omb. She’s rational, level-headed, practical, and responsible. There’s a reason she’s referred to as “The Smart One.”
She’s also “The Rhythm.” Importantly, she’s not the bass player (the role in the band that Scott actually occupies). She’s the drummer, and a pretty good one at that. Traditionally, women tend to be bassists if they play in a mixed-gender band (ex: Tina Weymouth, Kim Gordon, Kim Deal in The Pixies, etc.). They also tend to be the only female in a mixed-gender band. Pine is the only female in Sex-Bob-Omb, a speedy punk outfit, and she drives its beat.
Refreshingly, Pine does not suffer fools gladly, and usually not at all. But she does most of this without getting mad or even raising her voice. A withering look or a deadpan response is all that is required.
That said, she’s loyal to Scott, who she dated in high school but has no romantic feelings for as a woman in her early 20s. But she also challenges him, and doesn’t let him slack on her couch or get too mopey.
She’s also really good friends with Ramona. They have a stable, supportive relationship based on mutual understanding and respect. She also is shown having good relationships with her co-worker Holly and Lisa, an up-and-coming actress who also dated Scott in high school. Yay, steady female friendships!
Kim also works at the neighborhood video store. As someone whose opportunities in local media retail have always eluded her (probably because of my prediliction for button-up shirts), I’m always jealous of people who have cool, if not financially lucrative jobs. My friend Allison works at Waterloo and is happy to do it, not because of the pay, but because of the atmosphere, the sense of community, and the discount (also, I’d imagine, the free beer).
This aspect of Kim’s characterization was so great to me. Her job, along with the others that Scott’s friends occupy (barista, dishwasher, cook, courier, telemarketer), reminds me of some of my friends Joe/Jill jobs. None of Scott’s friends go to college (Kim talks about enrolling), but they still have access to the same kinds of shit jobs that many of my friends were qualified for after graduating college. None of the characters in Scott Pilgrim have “careers” in the traditional sense. Yet, despite this supposed lack of financial responsibility, these characters are trying hard to find some kind of creative outlet, suggesting the DIY spirit is alive and well in today’s twenty-somethings.
Also, duh. Kim’s really cute.
Apparently Alison Pill is playing Kim in the film adaptation and I’m excited. I especially hope we get to see her make out with Knives (along with another female character who engages in a lesbian relationship). Pill would certainly get more action than she did playing Harvey Milk’s uncharacteristically desexualized campaign manager Anne Kronenberg in Gus Van Sant’s otherwise great biopic.
Until the final volume reaches the bookshelves and the movie makes it to the multiplex, let’s enjoy The Wonderful World of Kim Pine, courtesy of O’Malley’s flickr.