29 January, 2009

Plenitude and Pantheism in In the Aeroplane over the Sea

I'm dumping this here--a paper I turned in November 28, 2005, for an undergraduate course called "Evil in Literature," which examined the various ways in which authors, poets, and artists have come to terms with the ugliness, chaos, and evil in a world supposedly made by a pure and beautiful god.
In 1998 in the town of Athens, Georgia, singer-songwriter Jeff Mangum with his band Neutral Milk Hotel released a forty-minute album, In the Aeroplane over the Sea, that—in addition to receiving both critical and popular acclaim and becoming a best-selling, must-have record in indie music circles for the years to come—would ultimately cripple his music career, the loudly trumpeted praise shying him into humble reclusion. The eleven tracks on the record, which include two instrumentals (one of them untitled), flow together, the final notes of one song spilling into the beginning of the next until the album finally ends with the sound of Mangum setting down his guitar and walking away. Combining Mangum’s raw, bellowing, heart-rending vocals, his acoustic guitar, and an array of instruments spanning many eras of time—from the flugelhorn to the zanzithophone, the electric guitar to the singing saw—the album is a kaleidoscopic treatise on love, sex, life, death, suffering, and everything in between, proposing a vision of spirituality in which the boundaries between the sacred and the real and between life and the afterlife are removed.

Though in one song Mangum sings “I will shout until they know what I mean,” the many fans and critics of In the Aeroplane over the Sea have never formed a consensus about the precise meaning of Mangum’s cryptic lyrics, despite all of his shouting and singing. Until access can be granted to the deepest innerworkings of Mangum’s mind, such unanimous understanding about the eleven songs will perhaps never be reached, since the lyrics—personal yet surreal, imagistic and emotional yet obscure—seem to overpower the givens of time, space, logic, and personal identity as in a delirious fever dream, piling on top of each other in a bizarre twist of wordplay. External comments by Mangum about the meaning of the album have been sparse, and any explanations he has attempted to provide have been somewhat enigmatic; even after singing that he proposes to shout until he is understood, he states, “I mean the marriage of a dead dog sing[ing],” a statement that is ironic because it is seemingly a mere non-sequitur, probably revealing nothing about the album except for an important yet seemingly strange visual: something that is dead yet is also able to sing.

One fact, however, remains extremely clear throughout the album and in external interviews: Mangum sincerely means what he sings, and the lyrics have profound meaning to him. By extension and through the careful acquirement of the album’s images and sounds, which serve as emotional stimulators like those in a Rorschach test, the album is capable of stringing together just the right elements to provoke a personal meaning from the listener, though this meaning may be different for everyone. This meaning is spiritual in nature, though it defies any traditional religious system. Through the recurrence of four characters—each of them faced with some form of personal suffering—Mangum illuminates a path toward salvation and immortality that can be achieved through complete love and through a surprising realization about God.

The album begins with a two-minute song, “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One,” a nostalgic journey into the narrator’s childhood told in the second person and therefore universalized and personalized for the listener. In this childhood, Mangum makes a startling contrast between beautiful, playful descriptions and stark, violent accounts of domestic tension:
When you were young, you were the King of Carrot Flowers,
And how you built a tower tumbling through the trees
In holy rattlesnakes that fell all around your feet.
And your mom would stick a fork right into Daddy’s shoulder,
And Dad would throw the garbage all across the floor,
As we would lay and learn what each other’s bodies were for.

Such contrast is only maintainable through the eyes of a child, a perspective in which details as safe and beautiful as a field of white carrot flowers or holy rattlesnakes that fall from trees (Mangum is perhaps referring to gnarled sticks or to the black seedpods of trees, which can seem to resemble snake skins) are placed side by side with the devastating details of alcoholism and violent rage, without any change in vocal inflection. Mangum proposes here and throughout the album that suffering, depression, and spiritual ugliness are concepts unable to be grasped by children, whose unadulterated innocence and boundless supply of imagination can turn even the most horrific events into beautiful dreams.

Not surprisingly, one of the album’s most prominent characters—appearing in many forms—is Anne Frank, a teenage girl who hid in an attic in Holland with her family throughout World War II before finally being captured and sent to her death in a Nazi concentration camp. Mangum has stated in interviews that reading Anne Frank’s diary for the first time, an experience that deeply moved him, was a major inspiration for much of the record. Haunted by dreams about the girl, Mangum believed that she was his true love, despite having died fifty years before he became aware of her existence. His awareness that such profound suffering could be coupled with such resiliency, purity, and innocence and his desire to believe that love could conquer even death helped him to write In the Aeroplane over the Sea.

Frank makes her first appearance in the third, titular track of the album:
And one day we will die and our ashes will fly
From the aeroplane over the sea,
But for now we are young, let us lay in the sun
And count every beautiful thing we can see—
Love to be in the arms of all I’m keeping here with me—
Anna’s ghost all around,
Hear her voice as it’s rolling and ringing through me, soft and sweet,
How the notes all bend and reach above the trees.

“In the Aeroplane over the Sea” strengthens the idea that childhood is an innocent, heavenly experience, unsullied by death and evil. Mangum acknowledges that physical death will one day come (“our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea”), but he dismisses this fact so that he can “count every beautiful thing we can see,” insisting that life, overall, is beautiful despite its darker aspects. Life is fleeting, yet worth holding onto; it is a “beautiful dream that could flash on the screen in the blink of an eye and be gone,” and the world is a place full of beautiful faces.

Anne Frank again appears, unnamed, in “Holland, 1945”:
The only girl I’ve ever loved
Was born with roses in her eyes,
But then they buried her alive,
One evening, 1945,
With just her sister at her side,
And only weeks before the guns
All came and rained on everyone.

Very suitably, she is the only love in Mangum’s life, for she is the heroine of In the Aeroplane over the Sea, serving as the prime example of the philosophy of love that Mangum proposes. Heartfelt lines in her diary, such as “I keep my ideals because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are truly good at heart” and “Think of all the beauty that is still left in and around you and be happy” are aptly reflected in Mangum’s lyrics. In “Ghost,” Mangum gives her an angelic, supernatural description, explaining that because of her bountiful spirit, she is invincible to death and suffering:
And she was born in a bottle rocket, 1929
With wings that ring around a socket right between her spine,
All drenched in milk and holy water pouring from the sky.
I know that she will live forever; she won’t ever die.
She goes, and now she knows she’ll never be afraid.

This claim to Anne Frank’s invincibility, however, is contrasted with a somber confession in “Oh Comely,” an eight-minute-long, slow-paced, acoustic epic where with a slow, mournful tone he explains that she eventually was killed. He states, “And I know they buried her body with others, / Her sister and mother and five hundred families.” This frightened admission that the Holocaust did triumph over her life, however, seems not to contradict the fact that “she won’t ever die.” It instead seems to evidence only that the darkness of the world, which comes with age, has begun to taint Mangum and his own happiness, bringing him closer to an inevitable spiritual death. This distinction is important; though Frank has died a physical death, she indeed remains alive spiritually. Others may die spiritual deaths prior to their physical deaths, and this spiritual death is marked by depression, evil, and an inability to see beauty.

Spiritual death comes only when innocence becomes tarnished, as evidenced by the first dark turn in the lyrics that begins in “In the Aeroplane over the Sea,” accompanied by an eerie singing saw:
But now we keep where we don’t know;
All secrets sleep in winter clothes
With one you loved so long ago,
Now you don’t even know his name.

Though the precise meaning of these details is intangible, the lines—with the aide of a sad inflection of tone and chord progression—evoke several tainted emotions and expressions: confusion, isolation, secrecy, coldness, loss of love, and loss of memory. The oppression of spiritual death on the mind is most visible in “Oh Comely,” which begins with someone losing his breath while “chasing the only meaningful memory [he] thought [he] had left.” For the comely character being addressed in this song, it is clear that life “isn’t as pretty as you’d like to guess.” Life after spiritual death is instead “bristling and ugly,” and though a comforting friend may be able to provide some support, “there isn’t such one friend that you could find here.” Instead, all of the people in the world seem to be “enem[ies]” who need be “crush[ed] . . . with everything I own.” Though once there was a lover who “believed in” him, now there is nobody and he is alone; he awaits only physical death as a passageway to renewal, the only hope available to someone who has died spiritually, which explains why the father in “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One” “dreams of all the different ways to die, / Each one a little more than he could dare to try” instead of dreaming about colorful fields like his son does.

In addition to Anne Frank, Mangum also claims to have been inspired by the suicide of a friend’s brother. This brother, who serves as an example of spiritual death as opposed to Frank’s spiritual life, also makes several appearances on the album, most notably in “Holland, 1945”:
And now we ride the circus wheel
With your dark brother wrapped in white. . . .
The earth looks better from a star
That’s right above from where you are.
He didn’t mean to make you cry,
With sparks that ring and bullets fly,
On empty rings around your heart,
The world just screams and falls apart.

When the “world … falls apart,” nothing remains for some people but physical death. Fortunately, Mangum seems to believe that physical death is capable of restoring spiritual life. There is no mention of a Hell or eternal torment in the lyrics of In the Aeroplane over the Sea; even suicides are given a second chance to see the beauty of living, as seen by the brother who now “rides a comet’s flame” where “the earth looks better.” In “Two Headed Boy, Pt. Two,” Jeff Mangum laments the loss of the brother, but only because it seems to temporarily separate him from someone he loves:
Brother, see, we are one and the same,
And you left with your head filled with flames,
And you watched as your brains
Fell out through your teeth;
Push the pieces in place,
Make your smile sweet to see.
Don’t you take this away;
I’m still wanting my face on your cheek.

Nevertheless, Mangum refuses to allow death to triumph. Referring either to the brother or to Anne Frank or to anyone else who has died, he states in “Two Headed Boy, Pt. Two,” “In my dreams you’re alive and you’re crying, / As your mouth moves in mine, soft and sweet. / Rings of flowers round your eyes, and I love you for the rest of your life.”

Physical death takes many forms on In the Aeroplane over the Sea, including reincarnation, entry into an afterlife, and passing into a parallel universe only loosely separated from this one yet still able to be reached through dreams and memories. In all forms, death is a return to innocence. Life, then, is a cycle from youthful, naïve purity to corruption and then back to a more knowledgeable purity that comes with death, though to say that the purity of a child who is able to see the beauty within all things is ignorant and naïve is perhaps a misstatement, since Mangum seems to believe that all things indeed are beautiful and an adult’s inability to see this does not come from gradual awareness of true ugliness but from gradual separation from true beauty.

In “Oh Comely,” Mangum illustrates this concept with a depiction of two conjoined twins freezing to death in a ditch:
Goldaline, my dear, we will fold and freeze together.
Far away from here, there is sun and spring and green forever,
But now we move to feel for ourselves inside some stranger’s stomach;
Place your body here, let your skin begin to blend itself with mine.

In this scene, the Siamese twins are surrounded by the apparently harsh cruelty of the world that is causing them to freeze to death; however, their love for each other prevails. Even in death, they have each other, and they know that soon, once they are reincarnated together in the womb of a new mother, there will once again be sun and warmth. Mangum cites reincarnation throughout his record, including in “Holland, 1945,” where he states that Anne Frank is now “a boy in Spain / playing pianos filled with flames.” The two instrumental tracks, when considered in comparison with each other and also in regard to their placement on the album, also musically suggest reincarnation. The first instrumental track, “The Fool,” the fifth cut on the record, follows the mournful, Islamic-style vocals at the end of “Two-Headed Boy” and erupts into the dirge-like procession of a horn ensemble playing a slow, waltzing march. This funereal song suggests a physical death, but life comes careening back to earth in the second, untitled instrumental song, the tenth track on the album. With bagpipes, upbeat drums, zanzithophone, and various other exuberant instruments accompanying a sighing choir, this tune suggests a rebirth and a celebration of life, with each note reaching happier heights.

In other instances, Mangum believes in afterlives that do not involve reincarnation, though all the forms of death that he recounts have reformative and transformative powers. After an ominous musical bridge in “In the Aeroplane over the Sea,” Mangum refers to a traditional, Heaven-like realm:
And when we meet on a cloud,
I’ll be laughing out loud,
I’ll be laughing with everyone I see.

Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all.
In other lines, spirits return to earth as ghosts, able to unite with their lovers through dreams and through actual, spiritual unification, as in “Ghost,” where Mangum states, “Ghost, I know you live within me, / Feel as you fly in thunderclouds above the city.”

As is obvious by his contradictions, Mangum does not claim to know exactly what happens after death. What he does know and believe is that death is not the end. He also proposes that the fundamental goal in life and in death—two sides of the same coin—should be to realize the ultimate beauty that composes the essence of everything. In the liner notes, which suitably take the form of one very long, free flowing, run-on sentence, Mangum refers to “the belief that all things seem to contain a white light within them that … [is] eternal.” Though most people may see the world as divided into a dichotomy between beautiful, “good” things and ugly, “bad” things, such a perspective is faulty in Mangum’s philosophy. This false dichotomy can lead only to depression and spiritual death, as more and more things seem to appear ugly. The happy person, then—the person who can achieve spiritual immortality—is the person who realizes that all things and people are interwoven together to form the same fabric of the universe. Placing carrot flowers, a drunken mother, holy rattlesnakes, and a suicidal father all in the same observation, then, is not a sight seeped in contrast but rather an account of the many possible things that can occur in the world, much like the plenitude principle which can be metaphorically explained by the fact that the individual notes of instruments—though ugly when heard alone—form beauty when necessarily combined in a symphony.

The “Two-Headed Boy,” another recurring character in the album, is the protagonist with which most of the listening audience will be most able to identify. His two heads suggest the split in his personality, a schism formed by two contrasting impulses: the desire to follow Mangum’s philosophy of “beauty in all things” and the overwhelming force that commands him to see the polarized world—beautiful and ugly—as most people see it. He is not flawless like Anne Frank, who was insistent upon universal beauty despite the oppressing ugliness of the Holocaust. Nor is he unsalvageable like the father in “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One,” who prays only for death and destruction. The Two-Headed Boy is precariously poised between two divergent paths. He can either choose eternal life and beauty, or he can follow the natural path towards death.

When Mangum first presents the Two-Headed Boy in the song named after him, he is in a dangerous position:
Two-headed boy,
All floating in glass,
The sun, it has passed
Now it’s blacker than black.

It seems as though he is on the path toward despair. In the next stanza, however, he is wearing “Sunday shoes” and dancing “around the room to accordion keys / With the needle that sings in [his] heart.” The needle of a record player fills his heart with music, and the Two-Headed Boy rises out of the black darkness into temporary happiness. He happily builds a home-made radio to give to his lover, a radio with “silver speakers that sparkle all day,” but—as Mangum has suggested in external interviews—the lover dislikes the radio and breaks it. She is “choking with her hands across her face.” This disastrous turn of events presents a new challenge for the Two-Headed Boy; in the face of misfortune, he may return to the darkness. The narrator, however, advises:
There’s no reason to grieve.
The world that you need
Is wrapped in gold, silver sleeves
Left beneath Christmas trees in the snow.

The Two-Headed Boy needs never fall completely into despair, since redemption is not found in the attentions of one individual but in the beautiful details of the world. These details can sometimes seem hidden and concealed like wrapped-up Christmas presents, yet they are deeply satisfying and rewarding when uncovered. In “Two-Headed Boy, Pt. Two,” the brother who has committed suicide seeks to find redemption through uncovering the secret beauty of the world. The brother is “in a struggle to find secret songs that you keep / Wrapped in boxes so tight / Sounding only at night as you sleep.” Sometimes it takes the imagination of dreams to reveal the true beauty of the world, yet it lurks at all times, an “eternal white light” under the surface of all things.

With the help of the narrator’s advice, the Two-Headed Boy chooses the path toward life, beauty, and happiness. His decision to follow in the loving footsteps of Anne Frank helps to influence the two other recurring characters of the album: the dead brother, who after death longs to make his “smile sweet to see” by finding the “secret songs” of the world’s beauty, and the suicidal father. The Two-Headed Boy addresses the father in “Two-Headed Boy, Pt. Two”:
Daddy, please, hear this song that I sing:
In your heart there’s a spark that just screams
For a lover to bring a child to your chest
That could lay as you sleep
And love all you have left.

Like many people on the album and in real life, the father needs to know that he is loved in order to be reassured of his happiness. Loneliness is a void he believes he needs to fill in order to be happy, and he attempts to fill this void through various unsatisfying sexual encounters throughout the album. In “Oh Comely” he makes “fetuses / With flesh licking ladies” while his depressive wife sleeps in the trailer home. In “Communist Daughter,” a similar character whose mind is obsessed with visions of “semen stains” on “mountain tops,” desires to experience “something warm and moving … [and] soothing” in order to prove “that she must still exist.”

Even the Two-Headed Boy at first believes he needs the sexual affection of his lover in order to feel fulfilled. He states, “In the dark we will take off our clothes / And they’ll be placing fingers through the notches in your spine.” The sex, of course, occurs in the dark, where it is connected to the “blacker than black” state of despair that the Two-Headed Boy sometimes enters. The “fingers … through the notches in your spine” are a poor substitute for the wings that Mangum describes sprouting from the spine of Anne Frank. Overall, Mangum concludes, sex is a poor substitute for true happiness. Since the love of another depends on external, uncontrollable factors, it is ultimately unreliable. Happiness can only come from within, through a perspective and through moods and ideas over which the viewer has complete control. In the concluding lines of the album, Mangum explains:
Two-headed boy, she is all you could need;
She will feed you tomatoes and radio wire
And retire to sheets safe and clean,
But don’t hate her when she gets up to leave.

Love between two people can be beautiful, full of gifts and security, but it may ultimately end in separation, either through cases such as divorce or even through death. This physical separation may seem like a forced cessation of love, yet Mangum has claimed throughout the album that love is the ultimate means of salvation. How, then, can one reach salvation through love if love sometimes is forced to end?

To solve this riddle, Mangum forces the listener to consider two facts. The first is the “theme of endless endless” that he refers to in the liner notes. All things “go on and on and on,” and everything is connected. Everything is one. A person commits a fallacy when he or she chooses to love one thing or one person while hating others, since everything is all part of the fluid substance of the universe. Loneliness, therefore, is a mistaken belief, since everyone is always connected and no one is ever “alone.” The second fact is interrelated to the first one: since everything is always interconnected, then nothing truly dies. Spiritual and physical deaths occur, but they eventually result in regeneration. A death is just a moment when a person “break[s],” and in this state the person must “wait for [his or her] miracle.” The miracle is salvation, and salvation is the rewarding realization that everything on earth is part of a beautiful, glorious, “holy spectacle.” Mangum exclaims toward the end of the album, “God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life.” The universe—or earth, specifically—is God, and all people and things are parts of and within God.

Since the universe is God, then Mangum is not concerned with “justifying the ways of God to man,” per se, but with justifying the ways of men to themselves. Suffering is not an externally imposed punishment but a self-inflicted disorder; depression comes when people fail to see the beauty all around and within them. The sacred canopy is imbued within all things; all things are both sacred and secular. The temporary love for people or things is rewarding, but true salvation and happiness comes from complete and total love and devotion to all things—in other words, love of the pantheistic God.

22 January, 2009

Movie Review: L'Atalante (1934)

I saw L'Atalante today, a 1934 French film by director Jean Vigo, who died shortly after its completion. It ranks sixteenth on the TSPDT? list, and frankly I don't have much to say about it.

The short film (85 minutes) tells the story of Juliette (Dita Parlo), a small town girl who weds a barge captain apparently on a whim after a brief romance. Her husband Jean (Jean Dasté) is irritable and jealous yet thoughtful and concerned. They join a sentimental, alcoholic old first mate (Michel Simon) and a teenage cabin boy on their rough and dirty business up and down the rivers on a barge where laundry is done once a year, more or less, clutter and trash abound, and a foggy night can spell imminent disaster.

Juliette longs to see the world, most importantly Paris, but she realizes that barge life will only expose her to riverbanks and seaports. Jean promises a life of love and excitement, and first mate Jules, whose cabin is full of knickknacks collected from around the world--Japanese fans, Canadian postcards, Spanish marionettes, a sailor's hands preserved in formaldehyde--informs her that such an exotic, intriguing life is possible. Captivated by radio reports from Paris, she plans her fashionable debut in big city society.

Her debut, however, is befuddled by a fast-talking swindler, a pickpocket, and a moaning frotteur, and the jealous Jean, vexed by her need for stimulation outside of the barge, disembarks from Paris without her, sending both of them in a romantic tailspin.

A catchy, instrumental theme song plays throughout the film, as well as a predictable yet sweet idea about being able to see the one you love when you submerge your head in water. Dita Parlo is cute, and the film is (overall) realistic and lighthearted, but there's nothing particularly memorable or stunning to merit such high ranking on the greatest films list. Stylistically, the only noticeable characteristic is a gritty preoccupation with disorder and filth. A street vendor has his wares strewn throughout a room, picking them up randomly and offering them for sale. Jules's bedroom is cluttered with arbitrary memorabilia, which Jean tosses about and destroys in one fit of jealous rage. The barge is crawling with wild cats, one of which suddenly gives birth on the newlyweds' matrimonial bed in an opening scene. Paris itself is teeming with overpopulation and industrial mess. Thematically, this concretes that Juliette has not married into a stable domestic life but one of happenstance and chaotic vivacity. Which is cool, I guess; there's a realistic disillusionment, but also an excitement for the moments and feelings reality does have to offer.

So, I liked the movie, and perhaps it'll sink in more later. Sixteenth greatest film? I don't think so.

d/w: Jean Vigo
(Dita Parlo, Jean Dasté, Michel Simon)

17 January, 2009

The Man in the Costume: Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Wrestler (2008)

My two favorite films of the past year have a lot in common, though one is a multimillion dollar blockbuster superhero sequel partly shot in IMAX and the other is a grainy, quiet character study that didn't even have enough budget to pay Axl Rose or Bruce Springsteen for song rights. [Numerous spoilers follow.]

Batman Begins established a Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) constantly on the run from the shortcomings of reality. The pampered son of a billionaire philanthropist, he inadvertently causes the shooting death of his parents because of his fear of bats. A corrupt Gotham City judicial system denies him any satisfaction from justice, while a plague of depraved poverty--of which his parents' killer was a victim--makes the simplicity of political misanthropy too complicated. He flees, leaving behind his unscarred, idealistic childhood love and his abundant inheritance, and makes his way to Bhutan, where he brawls with random criminals and thugs for no real reason.

From Ducard (Liam Neeson), a philosophical samurai he meets in the Himalayan mountains, he is granted the devices that will become his superpowers: deception--using smoke, mirrors, and mechanical wizardry to appear magical and superhuman; vigilant, dexterous fighting power; and an image, a persona to embody, a source of primordial fear. He becomes a bat, his own ultimate phobia, a terrifying force beyond his own control. Ducard also gifts him with a philosophy: in a mad world, one must draw a stern line between the good and the evil and act accordingly or risk becoming a part of the chaos.

Bruce accepts the superpowers and combines them with his father's wealth and technological resources to become Batman, complete with protective costume and highly evolved gadgets.

He rejects the philosophy.

In a world of accidental killings, senseless violence, crippling poverty, psychological illness, kangaroo courts, and hotheaded revenge, there is no distinct boundary between good and bad. The righteous-minded often behave horribly. To be ultimately good is to achieve the impossible task of rising above all ill behavior. To stop crime without instigating it. To deliver criminals safely to level-headed authorities who have been officially vested with the steady hand of justice (namely, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman)). To never kill, even when it would make things easy.

Bruce Wayne achieves this persona--frightening, stern, unstoppable, but pure. Like a Byzantine God with fierce eyes and an all-powerful palm raised both in benediction and admonition. But the task is immensely difficult, resulting in an expenditure of millions of dollars and dozens of bruises and scars. After being attacked by dogs in The Dark Knight, his confidant Alfred (Michael Caine) advises him to know his limits. "Batman has no limits," he steadfastly responds, to which Alfred warns: "But you do."

Bruce Wayne becomes secondary to his costumed crimefighter character. Bruce Wayne--celebrity socialite, billionaire playboy, womanizer, alcoholic, prodigal son--becomes the facade artificially concealing a personality that succumbs more and more each day to the unreality of a Batman superman. Friendships become impossible, his doomed relationship with childhood friend Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) goes on indefinite hiatus, and the stakes continue to rise.

The cleverer criminals see Batman as a challenge to encourage them, chief among them The Joker (Heath Ledger--in the most captivating, horrifying, hilarious, and memorable roles of recent years, regardless of the fact that he's dead... his performance is no less stunning than Javier Bardem's in No Country for Old Men, though Bardem was spared all the reactive backlash simply because he's still alive), another man hiding behind an image and a costume. It would be mistaken to characterize the Joker as Supreme Evil contrasted to Batman's Ultimate Good; such simplicities would be antithetical to the complexities of goodness established in the first film. More accurately, the Joker is Chaos, opposed to Principle, and for the first time Batman's nemesis has the upper hand. Chaos is the natural order of things, the primeval soup from which all life, even principled ones, sprang. It is Principle that is artificial, forced, dictated, that must be actively fought to be preserved. Everything naturally decays into entropy, and even the plans of our complicated world with its manifold interests can be as destructive and insane as mere coincidence. As the Joker explains, in a moment of insight that proves he's not merely a nutty trickster:
You know what I've noticed? Nobody panics when things go "according to plan." Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it's all "part of the plan." But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I'm an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It's fair!
While Bruce Wayne runs and distances himself from the complexities of the world, the Joker embraces and emphasizes them.

Like Batman, the Joker is a costumed character. His severe facial scars could come from any meaningless or emotionally resonant event, but though he mocks the concept of villainous motivation--abusive fathers, jealous love, and whatnot--we never know anything about the original man, not even his name. His mismatched custom suit, his green hair, and his sloppy clown makeup all establish the idea of foolish, unstoppable anarchy, as comic as the Bat Man is frightful, yet infinitely deadlier. The conflict and the driving force of the plot becomes an ideological showdown in the strictest sense--which idea will prevail? Will Bruce Wayne discover who the Joker really is? Will the Joker succeed in unmasking the Batman?

Amidst this war is a third costumed character, and though his facade is the least realistic it is the most convincing, managing to win him an admirable lover, a democratically elected public office, and even the esteem of Bruce Wayne: Harvey Dent, who dons the role of the Ultimate Good, even though we've already learned that such cannot exist. An energetic, good-looking, and righteous demagogue, he trusts in his own goodness and heroism. Though some of his underlings vaguely refer to him as Two Face, we initially see little of his impurity. As District Attorney, he fights crime in court, openly putting his own name and life at risk while Bruce Wayne cannot. He has completely succumbed to his politician's charm, his inscrutable public image, convinced that his irresistible tenacity and ability to "make his own luck" will pull him through any tough spot.

Like I said, though, there is no "Evil" and there is no "Good," and any statue built in such an image rests on a crumbling foundation. When the Joker's chaotic momentum prods at him, killing his love, dismantling his trust, and shedding his ideas of goodness and justice, Harvey Dent embodies another chiaroscuro 50-50 split--chance, neither good nor evil, just one or the other. Formerly a control freak, he now becomes a manic livewire, the madman Two Face, reducing all complexities to a mere coin toss. Heads you live, tails you die, regardless of mitigating circumstances.

Chaos is animalistic, natural, and extremely easy. Supreme Goodness is an impossible illusion, blind to circumstance. And the Principled Life, cognizant of chaos yet striving toward an idealistic good, is extremely difficult. In the end no clear winner emerges, as questionable means--burnings of letters, invasions of privacy, rewritings of history--are used to achieve honorable ends. The end of The Dark Knight is as complex, thought-provoking, and bleak as the world it highlights. An upright life in today's world is extremely difficult, but we just know it to be right.

In The Wresler, my favorite film from 2008, two more costumed roles emerge as means of running from and dealing with reality.

Little is known of Robin Ramzinski (Mickey Rourke) before he became Randy "The Ram" Robinson, muscleclad wrestling superstar known for the crippling "Ram Jam" finishing move. The slightly effeminate name evokes a Polish immigrancy, as does his quiet, respectful attitude outside of the ring. All we know is that in the ring, in his neighborhood, and at his Acme discount superstore job, he'd much rather be known as Randy, an All-American, testosterone-fueled, heroic man's man.

Twenty years ago, in the heyday of professional wrestling, The Ram was a headlining act on Pay-Per-View, his showdown with The Ayatollah (a foolish "villain" in the wrestling world, surrounding by "evil" 80s Iranian imagery, yet really a black used car salesman) garnering millions of viewers and attendants. Now he's a scarred, crumbling hunk of meat, addicted to steroids and painkillers, living alone in a trailer home and barely making rent, working at a deli counter on weekdays, and hawking his souvenirs in church basements on weekends amongst other decayed wrestling superstars lugging around their catheter bags and canes. Occasionally he headlines in poorly-attended fights, which have become increasingly bloody as the audiences have grown accustomed to Mortal Kombat and My Bloody Valentine 3D.

These fights are staged. Supposed arch-nemeses respectfully offer up choreography ideas while rehearsing finishing moves. The victor is known beforehand. Each stage of give and take is plotted for maximum audience suspense, and a man who attacks Randy (and himself) with a staple gun addresses him as "sir" minutes later, in the back room.

The world is theatrical and completely artificial, but within it Randy--the All American with the former good looks and the boyish charm--is a superstar for his audience. A force of Supreme Good against the evil Ayatollah. The epitome of masculine strength. "Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns N Roses accompanies his entrance parade as thousands give him a screaming, enthusiastic standing ovation. Millions fondly remember particular cage matches, certain meaningful speeches. It's soap opera for boys, but it's influential. In the ring, there's no divorce, estranged parenthood, drug addiction, poverty, or minimum wage. There's just strength and weakness, and The Ram possesses only the former.

Given that dichotomy, it's easy to see why Robin Ramzinski would lose himself entirely in the facade of Randy Robinson, yet one thing from the real world holds him back: a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) who happens to be the love of his life.

Cassidy, with her revealing skirt, shiny earrings, abundant makeup, and flirtatious, forgiving voice, is the moneymaking exterior of Pam, a single mother trying to make ends meet. We see only the desensitized, beautiful sex object for the first few scenes, lighthearted even as perverts take advantage of her, always on the prowl for hardearned money. When Randy finally meets her outside of the strip lounge, we see a completely different woman--protective, rational, stand-offish, and--as Randy awkwardly puts it--"clean."

Pam embraces the facade that many women must endure in this man's world: the easygoing hooker. Unlike Randy, however, Pam does not lose herself in Cassidy, nor would she ever dream of it. Cassidy simply pays the bills; Pam is the real person--the mother, the lover, the human.

In the end, the two halves of each character fall in love with the other, though which half loves which is questionable. Pam seems to love both Randy and Robin, and Robin seems to love both Cassidy and Pam. Unfortunately, Randy can't accept Robin and the world he comes from. For him, the only world worth living in died two decades ago, when WrestleMania for the original Nintendo system was the only game worth playing and ACDC and Axl Rose were the only options on the jukebox. The ending is bittersweet and unforgettable.

The Wrestler and The Dark Knight are easily my two favorite films of 2008. The former needles into your heart and brain with phenomenal acting, a touching screenplay, a realistic, precise direction by Darren Aronofsky, and a wonderful closing song by Bruce Springsteen. The latter is a superbly-directed, action-packed thrill ride with a great support cast and a fantastic, timeless story that explores morality, justice, and chaos, all important themes currently. The former has yet to receive a wide release and the latter has been seen by everybody; I recommend you see both immediately.

Batman Begins
d: Christopher Nolan w: Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer
(Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson)

The Dark Knight
d: Christopher Nolan w: Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer
(Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart)

The Wrestler
d: Darren Aronofsky w: Robert D. Siegel
(Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood)
(Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei)

11 January, 2009

Movie Review: Heat (1995)

Number 354 on the TSPDT? list is, I assume, what self-stylized "thinking men" consider their kind of crime caper: writer/director Michael Mann's Heat, a trite, overlong, dull thriller heavy on quiet scenes of obvious reflection, with a splattering of explosive, implausible weapons extravaganzas blended in, all set to the drippy, foggy synthesizers of an early nineties musical score.

Mann bloats almost three hours of screen time with a heavy-handed, terribly unmeaningful exploration of Good Vs. Evil. Al Pacino is Detective Vincent Hanna, the Good, and Robert DeNiro is Neil McCauley, one amongst the bad, a high stakes bank robber and trigger happy murderer. But, wouldn't you know it, they've got a lot in common! They both have relationship problems with obnoxious, poorly conceived women--on the one hand is a dreadfully stiff Diane Venora, whose character as Vincent's wife spends all of her scenes accusing her husband of having affairs and yelling at him for being too committed to the nonsense of his career. She apparently doesn't watch the news; after a lengthy shootout in the middle of the highway involving hundreds of bullets, millions of dollars, and several police, criminal, and civilian casualties, she decides to confront him about how lonely and pissed she is that he's been working (i.e. dodging rifle bullets in traffic and aiming past hostages) all day, confessing to marijuana use and a meaningless affair.

On the other hand is Eady (Amy Brenneman), a pushy, twangy bookseller-cum-graphic artist who lives in a "rundown" house overlooking LA (aka: in the movie world, an estate much larger and more beautiful than any house you've ever lived in). She's all alone, having migrated from Appalachia to New York to the West Coast, looking for companionship and her big break in the art world. She strikes up an awkward chat with Macauley in a diner, and soon they're having deep, late night conversation about goals and family, and next they're having sex, and eventually they're soul mates. They know each other for all of maybe two weeks (probably less) when Eady, previously convinced that Macauley was a steel salesman, realizes that he has in fact orchestrated the biggest, bloodiest shootout of all time. She contemplates fleeing but is soon convinced that she loves him so much she should run away with him to Brazil with all the loot, making her the stupidest, most implausible female in the history of cinema.

Both Macauley and Hanna are committed to their ambitions. Both are swallowed by their respective callings (as well as each other's conflicting callings). Both are prepared to kill or die when the time is right. Both are horribly boring (though Al Pacino rises slightly above on the interest meter) and surround themselves with lame people.

And on top of their problems (which, in a wiser movie, would've been more interestingly paralleled, with greater juxtaposition between what the characters were doing, feeling, thinking, with sharp editing highlighting their chiaroscuro dance... but instead we get slow pacing, plodding direction, weak acting, a convoluted plot, and that goddamn droopy score), we get the problems of two dozen other pencil-sketched ensemble actors... man with mustache, skinny gangbanger, gambling-addicted explosives expert, infidelitous police officer, black man with loving wife, and hysteric teenage Natalie Portman, who (despite only having four minutes of prior screen time) arbitrarily attempts suicide in the middle of the film's climax, in the strangest of locations, for the vaguest of reasons.

I really don't feel like writing about this obese film anymore. Usually I try to list any film's redemptive qualities, but here the two shining moments are so minor and specific that I won't even bother.

What a disappointment.

d/w: Michael Mann
(Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro)
TSPDT? #354

10 January, 2009

I am 8,694 days old.

So it's fairly common knowledge that I'm obsessed with lists and tabulations, statistics and spreadsheets, complete documentation. It hasn't yet reached the point where I'm like Nicholas Feltron, recording every beer imbibed and every subway trip traveled, but if you'll look in the right hand column then you'll see that I've racked my brain to recall and rate every movie I've seen and every book I've written (EDIT: read, haha). I have a detailed, scored, sortable inventory of all the 900 or so books in my library with aspirations of adding additional denotations for place purchased and date read and price paid and pagination and condition and god only knows what else I can imagine. I've considered writing an encyclopedia of all of my memories and impressions of every person I can ever recall meeting, and at one point a couple years ago I was writing a maximalist autobiography of all my life's details, both personal and trivial--from my first day of kindergarten to the temperature and wind speed at the time and location of my birth.

I've used the Social Security Death Index to research the obituaries, Myspace pages, newspaper articles, etc. of all 66 of the American citizens who were born on my birthday and have since died. I've expanded my family tree from about 15 known people to over 300. I know unillustrious ancestors ten generations back; I know every address my maternal, maternal great grandfather has ever lived at. Eventually I'll probably draw up some formula to calculate what my genetic life expectancy is.

I'm sentimental. I cling to arbitrary documents. I have most of the movie tickets I've ever purchased. Until twelfth grade I saved every receipt from every purchase I ever made with my own money, and when I started smoking I saved every empty cigarette pack for almost a year.

I've obsessed over canons--which is the point I'm eventually getting to. Time's 100 greatest novels of the twentieth century. Harold Bloom's Western Canon. The 1001 Movies You Must See Before You
Die. The Nobel laureates. The Pulitzer winners. The largely bullshit IMDb Top 250. The AFI 100 Greatest American Films. All of the 78 Academy Award Best Picture winners, which eventually grew to the over 400 Best Picture nominees, which is in the process of growing into the thousands of movies that have ever been nominated for any Oscar whatsoever--as if I really care to see U-571, unsuccessful contender for Best Sound in 2000.

I realize all the list-making and trivial documentation is a national plague. The Wall Street Journal recently did a very forgiving analysis of the trend. Life used to be simple, I imagine, with religious duties and physical science and local warfare imposing all the necessary duties and order. Now we're bombarded with lists of the Greatest Snowbound Horror Movies, trying to figure out how this somehow has anything to do with our place in the world. It's a way to waste time while being active, a time-consuming form of procrastination, a way to make sense of an extremely complicated world, and a way to hold onto memories and ideas and personal mementos in a throwaway, consumerist culture.

But, alas, I'm getting too serious. I wanted to talk about the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? list of the 1000 greatest movies of all time as determined by a consensus of all international film critics and publications of merit. It's a list that's updated about once a year, which is good because it's kept current but also bad because each year, when about 100 movies are swapped out for new, supposedly better choices, the number of movies I've seen on the list tends to drop. I've more or less seen 225 of them at this point, and it'll take me almost 62 days of nonstop watching to see the remaining 775.

I've never ascribed any particular motive to this blog, which though called Bibliophonic is more about movie reviews, often about book reviews, occasionally about gender and media studies, and much less frequently than I'd hoped about my own fiction writing. I just wanted to state that my journey down the TSP list is going to be one of my new foci.

And goddammit, I'll try to post more fiction, too.

09 January, 2009

Farewell, My Doppelganger: Vertigo (1958) and Mister Foe (2008)

When Vertigo initially met with critical and financial failure in 1958, Alfred Hitchcock blamed his long collaborator and screen star Jimmy Stewart for looking too old and failing to be romantic, truthfully vowing to never work with him again. The movie fell behind legal obstructions for three decades and in the 1980s was reintroduced with acclaim, many people hailing it Hitchcock's masterpiece. They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, which tabulates the opinions of international critics, currently ranks it as the second greatest film of all time.

I can't say that I agree. When I saw the movie in my seventh grade film studies class, I remember being turned off by the bizarre romance, the sudden ending, and Kim Novak's strange performance. Now that I've finally revisited it, expecting a greater appreciation, I can understand my apprehensions.

Jimmy Stewart as Detective Scottie Ferguson is too old to be romantic--at that point a wiry man of fifty, lamenting his bad back, hobbling with a cane, tossing curmudgeonly remarks to his smitten friend Midge (a giddy, bespectacled Barbara Bel Geddes), and downing highballs of bourbon. When a college friend enlists Scottie to spy on his delusional wife (Kim Novak), Scottie pursues the task too eagerly, gazing transfixed in prolonged, hypnotic sequences as she purchases flower arrangements, visits an art gallery, and drives the hilly streets of San Francisco. When wife Madeleine, convinced she's possessed by the suicidal spirit of her great grandmother Carlotta Valdez, leaps into the frigid San Francisco Bay, Scottie rushes valiantly to the occasion, taking the unconscious woman not to a hospital nor to her husband's home but to his own small apartment, where he disrobes her, dries her body, unpins her hair, and puts her snugly in his own bachelor's bed. When she comes to, his lingering stares far surpass that of a procedural private investigator. He's downright perverted, and when his hand "accidentally" cups hers while he reaches to refill her coffee mug, its an awkward gaffe full of tension but no romance. She rightly grabs her clothes and flees.

Feeling a sense of obligation to her savior, they begin to see more of each other. He's a self-professed career wanderer, and she does so by insane compulsion, commenting that when two people wander together they are always headed somewhere. The somewhere, predictably but very unnaturally, is a state of love, and when they embrace, sloppily, smearily pressing their lips against each other, passionately declaring their love for each other, the moment comes across more disturbing than anything else. He's a freelance stalker whose private and professional lives overlap, and she's a married millionaire in need of either a headshrinker or an exorcist. They barely know each other beyond strange interrogations where he conceals his real identity and she slips between dizzy spells and memory lapses. It's not exactly a match made in heaven.

I'm entering major spoiler territory when I say that he eventually takes her to the source of her crazed hypnosis, a Spanish fortress south of San Francisco. She slips into a bout of hysterical mania, races to the top of a bell tower where he--suffering from a crippling fear of heights--is unable to prevent her from flinging herself to her death.

The abrupt termination of his strange love affair and his guilt over being unable to stop it riddles him with "acute melancholia," a state of mute catatonia that lasts over a year and plagues him with surreal nightmares. Released into the real world, he sees her apparition everywhere, eventually attaching himself to a dark-haired Kansas girl (also Kim Novak) who physically resembles his lost love. He enters her hotel apartment, doggedly imposes himself upon her, and endures no qualms about unwillingly transforming her into the woman he lustfully desires her to be. "The man certainly knows what he wants," a department store clerk muses as he clothes his body double in the original's exact attire. It's sexist, possessive, and completely insane. The new relationship is made all the more deranged by the creepiness of the first.

Which is where my only hesitation about the greatness of Vertigo lies. One isn't accustomed to viewing Jimmy Stewart characters--nor protagonists in general--as off-kilter perverts, but once adjusted it's quite interesting. What fails to make sense, though, is the motivation behind Kim Novak's Judy Barton, who throughout the entire film is in fact one supposedly sane woman from Kansas--an aspiring actress who pretends to be Madeleine/Carlotta in order to aid the husband in offing his wife. She's later discovered by Scottie and attempts to show him her real self, wanting him to love her true personality and forget about the murdered, artificial doppelganger, but she never manages that. It's like a famous character actress falling in love with her biggest fan. Eventually her desire to be loved allows her to subsume herself entirely in the rehearsed role of Madeleine. She dyes her hair; she changes her mannerisms.

But why? There's guilt involved, of course. And maybe some loneliness--the small town girl lost in the big, crazy city. But she repeatedly claims that her one flaw in the operation was falling in love. She loves the sexist, possessive, twenty-five-years-her-senior Scottie. It's a misogynist development from a director who delighted in having Kim Novak repeatedly jump into the cold bay even when he knew he'd gotten the right shot already. It's a weakness in character development only possibly explained by dismissing Judy Barton as insane--a frail womanly creature willingly submitting to an abusive relationship and seeing suicide as the only possible escape.

And that's why this isn't the second greatest film of all time; though it's intriguing and original and the cinematography is meaningful and beautiful, it's just a tad outdated and offensive. Perhaps the screenwriter or the original French novelist is to blame; maybe Hitchcock himself. In any case, the film is visually stunning with its timeless, technicolor-rich sets, its spiraling, dizzying camera angles, its steep, vertiginous San Francisco landscape, and its unnatural use of ever-changing lighting with characters occasionally fading into dark obscurity, their physical presence shadowed by the idea of their presence.

d: Alfred Hitchcock w: Samuel A. Taylor
(Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak)


On the same day I watched Vertigo, I coincidentally watched the largely overlooked Scottish film Mister Foe (aka Hallam Foe), which in many ways is a spin on Vertigo (get it--spin? vertigo?), with even a sly reference to the original thriller at the end.

Like Scottie, seventeen-year-old Hallam (Jamie Bell) is a career voyeur, though his peeping is a way of life more than just a career. A lonely kid, he spends his time huddled in his impressive tree house, spying on his neighbors with binoculars and recording their activities in his journal. He knows a lot of secrets but never attempts to profit off them, and though he does a lot of creepy things Bell manages to convey an unusual charm rather than an off-putting perversion. He's a creep whose company you can enjoy; a watchful guardian angel rather than a shadowed masturbator.

Hallam is haunted by the death--possibly by suicide, possibly by a homicide involving the husband and his lover--of his one true love, who happens to be his mother. When suspicions of his ladder climbing stepmother (Claire Forlani) and his oddly cold father (Cieran Hinds) become too unbearable, he flees with his treasure trove of odd knickknacks (including his mother's passport, earrings, and dress) to a homeless life in London, where he discovers a hotel concierge (Sophia Myles) who looks exactly like his mother. Using his charisma and ample detective skills, he insinuates himself into her life (both secretly and openly), eventually becoming her bedfellow.

Their relationship is just as complicated as the one between Scottie and Judy Barton (even more so when you consider the Oedipal aspect), but here the involvement of Kate, a self-confessed slag and relationship-phobe, is far more convincing. "I like creepy guys," she drunkenly confesses at one point before trying to bed the resistant admirer, who'd rather just sleep with her than sleep with her. Mister Foe is Vertigo with humor and sex appeal, and though Hallam and Kate are just as weird as their predecessors, one can maintain a certain optimism for both of them. Their complexes are kinks to be worked out, not inevitable agents of death.

The exuberant pacing and indie soundtrack are great, as well as the talented ensemble cast, Jamie Bell especially (in his only good role since Billy Elliot) as a generally good-hearted kid riddled with some peculiar affinities and difficult growing pains. When he finally solves the mystery of his mother's death, its a heartfelt realization about the impact of suicide on the survivors, tied up with a sloppy bow.

It's Oscar season and a lot of undeserved attention is being flung on Clint Eastwood and Leonardo DiCaprio as potential Best Actor nominees. It's unfortunate that this eccentric movie, which never even got a wide release, has been completely overlooked. Jamie Bell certainly gives one of the more convincing and complex turns of the year. Maybe even Hitchcock wouldn't have been disappointed.

Hallam Foe
d/w: David Mackenzie
(Jamie Bell, Sophia Myles, Claire Forlani, Cieran Hinds)