Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Third Film by Jonathan Glazer

Jonathan Glazer's third film was my highest anticipated title of 2014. He's so far proven himself as creator of the glossiest commercial intimate chamber drama concoctions cinematically, Sexy Beast (2000) and Birth (2004). And all I knew going in to the new one was the premise: Scarlett Johansson plays a life form from another planet that drives around in a van and lures men into having sex with her. By the way, Birth is still one of my all time least satisfying premises (a woman meets an adolescent boy who claims to be her dead husband) and I wonder if Glazer tried to find a better pitch because he sure went for the polar opposite this time.

Under the Skin (2013, Jonathan Glazer) was released amidst labels in the press calling Glazer an heir to Kubrick. David Fincher's first trailer for Gone Girl (2014, Fincher) looks like he's definitely up to the large scale fluid ballets of symmetry and composition that Kubrick achieved, but Fincher is more impressionist. And Fincher is kind of a sellout when it comes to his narratives--but that's not a fault and it's an entire different discussion. Jonathan Glazer with Under the Skin has gone into territory that is new for him, abstract expressionism.

Under the Skin is an installation. You experience it. Kind of like Hunger (2008, Steve McQueen). You don't really have to do much. Johansson's alien picks up guys. Each individual encounter seems to represent the various types of encounters a guy can have when presented with an opportunity to have sex with a beautiful girl. It's very documentary like in this sense. There's not much to say, which is good.

The score follows a current vogue of wall to wall presence. The string arrangement seems to encounter two tones: suspense/menace and rapture/tenderness. But it's cold like the tone of the movie, the telling of the story, Johansson's acting, the lack of dialogue, the Scottish bucolic desolate exteriors, and the nihilism. And it's cool as shit.

The film comes off like Starman (1984, John Carpenter) meets Shame (2011, Steve McQueen) but from the point of view of a female protagonist. But it also feels a lot like Electroma (2006, Daft Punk) in its third act--namely the resolution that once an alien gets to know humans they are utterly destroyed by humanity's dark nature.

As an installation we get tons of exterior Scottish grand vista cinematography and real life street scenes with a montage of faces using a blend of multiple exposures to evoke a swirly abstraction of form. This is all complemented by a few set pieces in a mysterious dark layer where Glazer really relishes in the eye candy and eye poison.

Here I go again maybe over-doing it with the comparisons, but this whole tone felt to me like Bruno Dumont. Bruno Dumont is currently the farthest thing from Hollywood commercial practices while still committing to a fictional narrative and Jonathan Glazer's style here is what's most impressive about Under the Skin. I'm glad with all of his promise he's still managing to be original. That's the highest complement I can give Under the Skin, its set pieces continually prevent plot questions and it just happens. I kept wondering where it was going and it kept surprising me.

I don't think this is about revelations into human nature. I think its an object of beauty about an object of beauty.


Sunday, April 06, 2014

Great Urinals of the Pacific Northwest

Pizza Harbor, Seaside, Oregon.

Fat Contradiction on HEAVY TUNES: Seven Sounds of 2013, Year of the Plummeting Guillotine Blade

Ed Note: This was supposed to run over at Up the Pucks, but it's been four months, so I gather that they are no longer interested, if indeed they ever were. Ah well.

Chris Collision Fat Contradiction on HEAVY TUNES: Seven Sounds of 2013, Year of the Plummeting Guillotine Blade

In 2013, I was mostly not listening to music from 2013; it is, after all, Never Not the Seventies, and I was occupied most of the year with looking back, looking in, and looking angrily at the stupid garbage circumstances given and transmitted from the past, circumstances weighing like a nightmare on my brain (and everything else). But still these are revolutionary times, and a few new creations did attract my attention. Please enjoy these brief, anxious flares of the new, so bright against the darkness of the walls ever closing in.

Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, Mind Control
This is metal that is frequently inspired-by, but is never merely referential. Uncle Acid mines the past without spinning its wheels...in a rut. (I could go on like this for a while.)

Future of the Left, How To Stop Your Brain In An Accident
The world's funniest angry post-punk band, their best-sounding album, and, in moments, one of their catchiest. Get behind the punch-stomp of "future child embarrassment matrix", then slip into the hooky screeching of "the male gaze", and remember that all the world's vile powers can be remade into something better for us all.

Lord Dying, "Greed Is Your Horse"
The rest of the record hasn't really sunk in yet, but this song was one of 2013's most savage beatings. Perfect music for raving against the agonies of existence.

Snailface, Snailface IV
For the lighter side of HEAVY TUNES, here's a dad-metal concept album about...camping. I came back to this record incessantly: great for bike rides, drinking alone, and other situations where you need something like a campfire singalong but don't have a fire or friends.

Carton/Alpha Cop, Fingertips/The Low Flags Split 7"
Full Disclosure: I first heard this because I help out with copy for the label that put out this single. I would have loved it anyway: Carton is joyous post-grunge with loud guitars and Alpha Cop wrote the song of the year.

Power Trip, Manifest Decimation
Best thrash album I've heard in years. Best breakdowns I've heard in years. Missed them when they opened up for Fucked Up because life is fundamentally a barely-leavened lurch from atrocity here to indignity there and I don't deserve good things. But this album is intensely good.

Russian Circles, Memorial
Another soothing balm against the flensing knives deployed by civilization's onrushing self-destruction: drone-grooves. Honestly, I spend most of my time listening to stuff like this anymore, always chasing the next Red Sparowes (RIP) or trying to find a Pelican with a drummer who can...drum. This is like that and it makes me as less-unhappy as anything else.

Chris Collision Fat Contradiction writes about sports, sometimes, for The Classical and The Classical Magazine, podcasts about other things, and rabble-rouses about hockey, coffee, mescal, bikes and justice on Twitter.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

GET THEM: Matt Maxwell's Tug on the Ribbon and Other Stories

"My Spirit Animal Is a Cassette Tape"

My introduction to art and death came through the cassette tape. Christmas of 1984: my first four tapes, and a Radio Shack player/recorder; music; art. Within a year: an everpresent Walkman in my jean jacket's pocket; tapes eaten; death. The fragile ribbon of magnetic tape delivered the music I needed to live a life worth living, and took it away at frequent, irregular intervals. The garbled crunch-then-squeal in my headphones was an everpresent possibility—the presence of loss looming over every time I hit PLAY.

I hit PLAY a lot. I was in the suburbs then. It was unwalkable, but I didn't know that, so I walked everywhere. The public transit system sucked, but I didn't know that either, so I spent a lot of time on the bus, guitars in my ears and a need for literally everything other than what I had in my heart. Eventually I got hip to the power of fleeing, and I began to spend even more time on the bus, out on the prairie between cities, staring out the window, playing tapes, playing tapes, playing tapes.

I've told this story before, or parts of it, anyway. But the experience of the tape, fragile and linear and impossibly valuable, made me who I am, and I'm still always looking for a way to port some art into where I am, what I'm doing.


I don't remember exactly when Matt Maxwell invaded my consciousness. Likely some confluence of Twitter interests blew him out of the desert and onto my screens like a low-key prophet bringing the sandstorm. Quick poking about established him as, at the very least, a Deeply Kindred Spirit to this Reviewieran Axis—Contradiction, Tinzeroes, Erroneous, et al.—nowhere more clearly laid out than in his "influence map" for his in-progress book Blue Highway, which could no joke serve as a fairly comprehensive introduction to Reviewieran aesthetics:

  • The movies The Road Warrior and Mad Max and Blade Runner and Escape from New York and—and this is deeply odd, because Tinzeroes and I thought literally nobody but us ever liked this one—Streets of Fire
  • The weird pencil-and-paper board game slash role-playing game Car Wars
  • William Gibson's great novel Neuromancer
(Not Tom Waits, tho: Reviewiera is and was and ever shall be a place for Captain Beefheart and Roky Erickson, and no, not ever bad actors and shtickmeisters like Tom Waits.)

The deal was sealed when he tweeted a link to the matchless HEAVY TUNES of Shooting Guns. I had to buy something to say "Thanks!". (Note: by all that is good, I tell you three times that capitalism is gross.) He's got a bunch, but there was no way I wasn't starting with the one with a cassette tape cover.

Tug on the Ribbon's four stories cover considerable ground, as did I, reading them on BART trains over the last week or so. Each draws from and advances on the ecosystem of influences blooming in the influence map we saw earlier. Perhaps more Bruce Sterling than William Gibson, Maxwell likes big-idea backgrounds: several stories are set in a world that feels complex and alien and recognizably the product of our own one unwon world, evolved in some specific way. Maxwell also echoes Sterling's insistence on incorporating non-Anglo/American sets and settings for his stories, as in "Luna Sangre"'s genetically engineered and fully networked gang/religious war nightmare in Tenochitlan and "Tug on the Ribbon"'s desert outside the city:

Wind shearing through the fingers of the creosote and the Manzanita and the stubby paws of the prickly pears. It was laden with trash. Bits of paper or shiny foil that glinted like fake treasure in the half-light. Pieces of plastic so small that they weren't worth cleaning to melt down.

"Coming Soon"'s desert reminded me most of the atom-bomb test site in the strangely effective and emotional Cold War SF movie The Amazing Colossal Man, with a little bit of hot-rod culture dashed in like the sudden memory-blast that Steve McQueen was in early Technicolor monster movie The Blob. This story is a romp, with a revelation I liked so much I won't say more, except to link it to an early William Gibson oddity/fave, "The Gernsback Continuum". (Reviewiera: Never Not Bringing Up Stories from Mirrorshades.)

"Crunch Time"'s world is one where everything is collapsing, the world is fucked, and insane idiots with the exact wrong priorities are in charge. It is unclear what this piece of journalism is doing in a collection of short stories. This mean-spirited slice of doom might have been my favorite in the moment, pulling audible giggles from me and making me want to watch Dawn of the Dead and Office Space simultaneously.

Of them all, "Tug on the Ribbon" is so far staying with me the most—as you'd expect of a dream-hazy story with some drugs, a broken, lying authority feeding on the poor, cassette tapes, and a Greyhound trip.


Death is coming for us all. We're surrounded by poison because we've proved incapable of governing rationality with moral wisdom; we're governed by imbeciles because we've proved uninterested in introducing rationality into structures of power. What passes for "culture" is a systematic fraud, lies designed to alienate us from each other and even ourselves, providing endless spurious satisfactions and pernicious canalizations and redirections of all worthwhile and productive impulses. It's not clear we have 200 years left. This is admittedly a bummer. And yet I claim there's room for hope.

One reason for hope is that there are still those among us who are trying—who look at all the readymade options and say "Fuck it, I'd rather roll my own.". It's hard goddamned work, though, and it deserves your support. Buy this book. Let it help you think better thoughts. Go forth and be and do better.

—Fat, kicking against the pricks

Ash, Trembling Aspen, and Lime; or F, G, and Cantus Firmus

Lars von Trier's latest narrative proves that he's continually succeeded in refining his vision and remains a voice to be heard. Piracy of downloads, torrents, and screeners is fucking bullshit. This whole obsession with watching the newest releases before they are released is senseless. It just pisses me off a little that a film worthy of a theatrical screening like von Trier's latest is subject to a bunch of fanboys and dilettantes watching it on their laptops and dismissing it as lackluster while it screens in theatres across the world.

Nymphomaniac (2013, Lars von Trier) opens with a nearly artificial mechanically-precise choreographed set piece in a dark corner of a European neighborhood where Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lays prostrate eating wet cobblestone, by chance to be discovered by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) on his way to the corner market for a few groceries. The sound design begins as silence combines with subtle natural ambience to evoke a tranquil vacuum until inexplicably non-diegetic Scandanavian Heavy Metal ruptures the calm surface.

The narrative is told in eight chapters.

Joe is the titular nymphomaniac who recounts her life to the mild-mannered Selig. Joe's father took her for walks as a girl and taught her about trees. Selig's an elderly eccentric whose body of knowledge draws from the Fibonacci numbers, Bach, and fly fishing. The lives of these characters are fully realized and provide the foundation of this fictional world.

It's the women whose performances are the pith. Stacy Martin is the twentysomething ingenue who takes the foreground and follows in the footsteps of Emily Watson, Björk, Nicole Kidman, Kirstin Dunst, and Gainsbourg. Martin as the nymph provocateur is exquisitely and classically radiant with a timeless beauty--large pock marks above her right eyebrow distinguish her youthful moneymaker mug. And kewpie doll Mia Goth cunningly demures her own wiles. But Charlotte Gainsbourg is back for her three-peat and once again masters a tough task. Father Time has caught up with plastic surgery-faced Uma Thurman, but as Mrs. H she rightly steals her chapter. "Would it be alright if I showed the children the whoring bed, they have a stake in this too?" might be this season's "Chaos Reigns."

While on the other hand, Kenny Rogers level plastic surgery-deformed Christian Slater somehow manages to perform underwhelmingly in his chapter, "Delirium." You call that dementia? But I'm being too harsh. The "Delirium" chapter feels like 60s Bergman, and the composition from between Joe's legs at the moment she reveals: "I lubricated," is the stuff int'l arthouse fare is best known for.

Shia's good. His mock British accent and formalites are rare form for von Trier--humor. Shia LeBeouf's turn as Jerôme daringly meets its commitment of living up to the type of role that will show audiences he isn't just Sam Witwicky. The business with the cake fork and the rugelach is rich. The moment when Jerôme reproaches Joe and commands for her to submit to "a do-over" is knee-slappingly hysterical.

The narrative is full of invention. Von Trier is back. The on screen text is so novel I'm jealous. Like the red lining of "wh" prefixed words in the railcar for example:

Wh-at time is it?
Wh-ere do you come from?
Wh-o knows how to get to the lavatory?
Comparing jailbait sluts with bait and fishing topography in the reading of the river scene floored me. The "fuck me now clothes" and the lures broke new ground. And while nowhere near as clever, the penis montage is fresh. (As a sidenote, the establishing emergency room exterior shot of sliding doors which precedes the penis montage is taken from the Danish television miniseries The Kingdom (1994-'97, Lars von Trier and Morten Arnfred).)

And another instance of von Trier's self referencing which finds him at his most mischievous is the Antichrist baby on a ledge lark cued with Handel's "Lascia ch'io pianga" aria. It was weird that I laughed so hard at this in the theater because the people around me didn't seem to get the reference and I felt like they might think I was laughing at an infant meeting an Eric Clapton fatality--not funny.

The amount of inserts in Nymphomaniac is staggering. This is von Trier writing with film. ("Film" is what I call HD video, in case anyone is too young to know what film is.) But Nymphomaniac also feels to me the closest von Trier has come to the structure of the novels of say, Marquis de Sade or Marcel Proust. Joe drops allusions to novels and films, which is meta but not postmodern. Von Trier's form is classical. And this is practically a linear narrative, told through flashbacks.

The whallup of an ending surprised me. Von Trier is saying that no matter how much guys pretend to study sexuality or be interested in sexuality, they're really thinking about fucking and kidding themselves. And according to the laws of nature, if you treat the wrong creature as a sex object, be prepared for the consequences.

There are many tough sequences in this film. Bondage is just weird to me. I should be more open minded. I really wanted to empathize with Joe, but I can't. Nor do I have to. This film is about seeing things through Joe's eyes.

And I thought the ski-masked bikini girls in Spring Breakers were smutty? The image of naked Charlotte Gainsbourg between two fully erect black penises went all Mapplethorpe and shit and the spoils should go to von Trier.