Bodies, rest, and motion: Whit Stillman

To praise Whit Stillman as “a cinematic master of bodies at rest” is as cute as praising David Crosby as the rock and roll chronicler of sixties excess, but otherwise Richard Brody’s review of the writer-director’s pilot for “The Cosmopolitans” is accurate about the strengths:

For Stillman, parties are laboratories where possibilities arise suddenly from the close and quickly ricocheting contacts of social atoms—and where social rules, hidden beneath the murky surface of daily life, emerge more clearly, in ritualized isolation. The second is something that happens at the party: a dance, but a formally patterned one where the rules are the very subject….it’s as if he sees dance (the kind that has any value to him, the kind that has rules) as the physical counterpart to his socially sensitive characters’ dashing dialogue.

Until Damsels in Distress I made allowances for the clumsy juxtapositions, awkward cuts, and halfhearted staging in the earlier films because their verbal surfaces so beguiled me; if what I’ve read about “The Cosmopolitans” is true, then TV might prove the most congenial medium; and I hold out hope that the title refers to the cocktail.

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It’s Charlie

Here we go!

Heading into Tuesday’s primary election, Charlie Crist’s win over longtime Democrat Nan Rich was never in doubt. Only the size of his double-digit win — about 50 percentage points — was in question.

The general election pitting Crist against Gov. Rick Scott is far less certain. It’s close to a tie race. And it’s brutal.

Amid his cakewalk of a primary, Crist has had to deal with the bitter reality of Scott’s multi-million campaign juggernaut, which has spent nearly $28 million since November, trashing the Democrat on the airwaves from the moment he officially entered the race.

Crist thanked Rich in his acceptance speech and assailed Scott for everything from immigration policy to voting rights to abortion opposition.

“The only time my opponent isn’t looking out for the special interests is when he’s looking out for those who share his extreme out-of-touch tea-party ideology,” said Crist, pledging that “in 70 days, we want to make Florida Scott-free.”

No surprise – look at Crist’s margin of victory over Nan Rich. But I’m astounded by the quickness with which top Florida Democratic donors opened their wallets. Rich never had a chance. It underscores the extent to which Florida is a one-party state, always has and will be. Until the late nineties the Democrats held it.

What will take place is a Grover Cleveland election: Crist hoping to return to power but as Benjamin Harrison or something.

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‘I’ve grown beyond using my own experiences’

Sinead O’Connor, promoting the sold I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss, discusses the sources of her craft.

Does that change the way you sing some of your older material? Do you see a younger version of yourself as a character to play?

The way I’ve been trained as a singer is a method called bel canto, where you don’t use notes or scales. You use the emotion of the characters. The rule of bel canto is that you don’t sing a song you can’t emotionally identify with. If as a method singer I cease to find anything inside myself that I can use in a song, then I don’t perform that song anymore. But that hasn’t happened very often. For example, I’ve been singing “Nothing Compares 2 U” for 25 years, and I’m always able to find something every night. I’ve grown beyond using my own experiences. Now I imagine I’m other people talking to other people. I know I sound mental, but that’s what I have to do. It will vary from night to night, but I usually have a plan in my head as to who I’m imagining I am and who I’m talking to.

Does that approach present difficulties when you’re working on an album and you can’t find the emotional hook for a particular song?

You would find it with new songs because they’re always exciting and fresh. If you came across a difficulty, it would be with older songs, which aren’t really character songs. I didn’t actually get around to writing character songs until that last album. Up until that point, all the songs I wrote were extremely autobiographical, so there was always something I could identify with. They might mean something slightly different to me now that I’ve matured a bit, but it’s still me. On my first album there are a couple of songs that I can’t do anymore. One is called “Drink Before the War” and the other is “Never Get Old.” I love those songs, but I wrote them when I was 15 and pissed off at my headmaster. I can’t identify with them anymore. Also, “Troy.” I don’t perform that song because I don’t feel that anger anymore. I can’t act it. I wrote those songs when I was a teenager and can’t identify with them at the age of 47.

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Make it rain: Ariana Grande, Brad Paisley

Ariana Grande – My Everything

She can sing, possessing a voice with a sweet high end and dark chalky tones at the bottom like a hot cup of Earl Grey, but she hasn’t evinced much shrewdness for collaborators or hook writers. If “Problem” sounded OK after the hundredth time, credit the disparate pieces that the ear can isolate. On Grande’s second album, there’s a desperation to the choices: the samples, guests, the decision to make Grande’s role recessive in these clotted arrangements. The album’s not desperate in the mercenary let’s-make-a-single-for-every-market sense; it plays like an album assembled by people who commissioned second rate market research on what her strengths are. It’s as if the Christina Aguilera of 1999 made Back to Basics in 1999. She’s best when she stops being merely recessive and disappears into the beats completely: on the thickly textured Guetta production “One Last Time,” (reminding me of the Mariah Carey from the 1999 Jay Z track “Things That U Do”), the Robyn-esque anxiety of The Weeknd co-write “Love Me Harder.” The exception: “Break Your Heart Right Back,” about a woman learning her boyfriend hooked up with a guy. Shouting over and over “My baby loves men” and persuading no one including herself, riding a sample of Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” whose ironic potential just sits there like a senior citizen in kindergarten, Grande can’t will herself to disappear. But still. To get away with such masochism takes panache.

Brad Paisley – Moonshine in the Trunk

With Wheelhouse accounted a failure thanks to a misbegotten negro-amigo paean, the scuttlebutt is that the savior of country music for white urban liberals needed to restore his commercial luster. But even if Wheelhouse had sold as much as Time Well Wasted or Fifth Gear or boasted album tracks as fine as “If Love Was a Plane,” “Time Well Wasted,” and “Easy Money,” it bore the misfortune of a release coinciding with changes to chart methodology that have shaken his once formidable hold on the top; even “Beat This Summer,” a surefire hit had it been released in 2006, only managed to peak at #9. Moonshine in the Trunk takes no risks; few Paisley albums have. The title track and “You Shouldn’t Have To” coast on charm and a band as intuitive about their leader’s strengths as Merle Haggard’s Strangers. Alarmingly, though, his former exquisite knack for writing Songs About Stuff has abandoned him: “Limes” is the lamest inversion of a cliche I’ve heard all year. The bro country contribution “Crushin’ It” gets hopped up over nothing at all. “Perfect Storm” is the first love song attached to his name without a single hot lick or memorable line. Like Ariana Grande, he records a song whose unintentional laffs spring from a sensibility immune to irony: a self-composition called “Shattered Glass” a prayer for a fictional infant daughter whom he hopes does greater things than he. Graced with one of his most emphatic, empathetic vocals on a ballad, it’s also hobbled by icky angel metaphors and the lines “C’mon, make it raaaiiiin/down on me,” surely the year’s oddest enjambment, unless Paisley thought hookers get all the glory.

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Michael Brown and the ‘angelic standard’

I think of some of my students’ stories and of incidents in my own life and wonder how many readers use Michael Brown’s biography as a mirror:

I had my first drink when I was 11. I once brawled in the cafeteria after getting hit in the head with a steel trash can. In my junior year I failed five out of seven classes. By the time I graduated from high school, I had been arrested for assaulting a teacher and been kicked out of school (twice.) And yet no one who knew me thought I had the least bit of thug in me. That is because I also read a lot of books, loved my Commodore 64, and ghostwrote love notes for my friends. In other words, I was a human being. A large number of American teenagers live exactly like Michael Brown. Very few of them are shot in the head and left to bake on the pavement.

Ta-Nehisi Coates links to Toure, who wrote a column touching on similar matters that is the most trenchant piece to which he’s lent his name in months.

The piece of this story from which scoffers on my Facebook page refuse to learn a jot consists in accepting that no matter what crimes Brown is alleged to have committed his parents did not deserve to see his lifeless body on the street ignored for hours. Even if he shoved a clerk for the sake of a pilfered box of cigars he didn’t deserve treatment meted out to opponents of the regime in El Salvador in the early eighties.

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Abuse of Weakness

In a career spent playing self-contained women with a touch of sullenness, Isabelle Huppert chose a role that I might expect if she’d agreed to be the subject of a celebrity roast. As Maud Schoenberg, a director paralyzed on the left side after a sudden stroke in Abuse of Wakness, Huppert yields not an inch of sympathy; with a left arm erect like a flag post and fingers in a claw like Dr. Strangelove, Huppert’s playing the role straight for laughs might’ve been the most delicious temptation. Maud has superficial resemblances to Emma Bovary, whom Huppert played for Claude Chabrol more than twenty years ago: she throws money away on a loser. As played by French rapper Kool Shen, Vilko is as unsentimental as she but shows a feral side that, the movie suggests, may attract women less cool than Maud. In their inappositeness they’re made for each other. I’d like to have been in the preview audience when Huppert said “What I’d really like is to laugh.”

Writer-director Catherine Breillat adapted her own memoir, and she has kept its essential strangeness. Maud’s children, with whom she has a polite but distant relationship, don’t receive the phone call for help that you or they would expect. She wants to return to work. Maud doesn’t stop being a director; she’s most animated during these sessions and watching rushes. “The handicap needs an S&M look,” she remarks about one unfortunate possibility, and Breillat lingers long enough to get a quiet laugh out of remembering Huppert in I ::heart:: Huckabees. During casting sessions she meets Vilko, released from prison after serving time for check fraud. Do his graceful movements arouse her? Or do comments like “My master is Nietzsche”? Before long she is writing him check after check; in return he serves as dinner companion, occasional crutch, and object of derision. They even share a bed, sexlessly. It’s during these moments when Huppert and Shen act like snapping turtles that Abuse of Weakness turns into one of the odder movies of 2014. Lit in refrigerator white tones, it imposes the sterility of a sick room. It’s as if Maud’s using herself as a test model for a theory about relationships.

By the time Vilko has borrowed close to 800,000 € — part of which was intended to buy a restaurant that he’d hoped to turn around and give the profits to Maud — and the bank is serving her notices, Maud remains obdurate. She hasn’t mastered her disability either. She falls often, must watch as others cut her food, and sniff but not touch the excellent red wine that Vilko buys on her dime. She looks disturbed only when awakened by her ringing cellphone: a recurring joke that gets a laugh every time. Confronted by creditors and her children, she can’t explain her motives. “It was me, but it wasn’t me.” Breillat stages the actors as if the explanation for Norman Bates’ behavior is coming — another touch of devilry, another expectation thwarted. Huppert’s lack of vanity as an actor means the role is a minor triumph. The surlier these characters act, the droller Abuse of Weakness is. And Vilko gets the cruelest line: “Nothing moves you, you upper class bitch.”

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Twenty-two years ago today…

Twenty-two years and four hours ago, I turned off the guitar squall of Joy Division playing on my Walkman to hear the blitzkrieg outside. My calm but scowling dad ordered me to join them in the kitchen, the only room with no access to windows. My sister, grandmother, great-grandmother, great aunt, and mother were already there. The power went out. For more than two hours the wind roared, at times competing with the noise of fervent and precise praying from my mother and great grandmother. When it ended at dawn we opened the door and saw a mess: tree limbs, directional signs, toys, millions of shards of glass; but the neighborhood had survived. We lost a quarter of the roof tar paper, although my enterprising grandmother had not waited for the storm to end to call her friend the contractor; he was at the house by eight-thirty, at the start of what was likely a grueling week and month.

Andrew introduced many of us to the ferocity of hurricanes. An experience sober and unique enough to be forgotten, as is our wont. We’d get refreshers during the 2004 and especially 2005 hurricane seasons.

The Miami Herald reprints its first post-storm front page story. Even today the details chill me:

Power outages were everywhere. About 1.3 million of 2 million homes in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach County were without power by 8 a.m., said Ray Golden, a spokesman for FPL. In Dade, about 76 percent of people had no power and in Broward the number was even higher, Golden said.

Conditions in Cutler Ridge “couldn’t be worse, ” said police officer Earl Steinmetz. “The roads are just about impassable with downed lines, downed trees. We’re picking our way through the rubble.”

“It’s impossible to know even where you are because nothing looks the same. It’s devastating, ” Steinmetz said.

“I’m sitting in the police station, which is half gone. The Government Center roof is all gone. The library is gone. Just getting in here was almost impossible.”

No officers were injured when part of the Station 5 roof collapsed, he said.

Steinmetz also said the roof of his home, a mile away, “is gone.”

Watch the excerpt above if you’ve got a few minutes.

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